Recently in Nature Category

...because Foto Friday was already spoken for. Plus, I'm a procrastinator.

Here are some pictures I took.

Photo - Green tree frog on mandevilla leaf in bright sunlight
Where's a pair of Wayfarers when you need them?

The green tree frogs have been numerous lately (or perhaps there's just one and he/she is someone ubiquitous). But it's a bit rare to see one in the bright sunlight like this. It soon retreated into the shade of this mandevilla.

Photo - Spider molt - unknown species
What's going on here?!

For a couple of days this week I was watching yet another arachnid activity outside one of our windows. This one had me puzzled. It appeared to be two spiders. Was there a meal taking place, or was it a bit of spidery hanky-panky? I had no idea, but this scene persisted for almost two days.

The next day, this was the only thing left:

Photo - Spider molt - unknown species
No wonder it took the spider two days to wriggle out of this.

It's the same scene; I just used a macro lens to get up close and personal. I was now even more confused, as this spider was moribund to the max. So I turned to my go-to resource for insect identification: the Antman's Hill® Facebook group. The experts there quickly explained why my spider wasn't skittering about. This is actually a molt...the shed "skin," if you will, of the spider shown in the previous photo. Pretty amazing, huh? (Those experts never did, however, identify the spider for me. I guess they figured that anyone who couldn't tell a spider corpse from a live one was probably hopeless. And, of course, they were right.)

Photo - Anole resting vertically on a metal gate
Move along, folks...nothing to see here.

Some people have fence lizards, others have tree lizards. Some even have brush lizards, which presumably are afraid of heights. We, however, have gate lizards. (OK, it's really just an anole whose camouflage isn't as effective as it thinks.)

Photo - tree fungus with a tiny T-rex photoshopped in its shade

Tree fungi pop up in the weirdest places sometimes, but they provide a valuable service to tiny creatures needing respite from the Texas summer sun.

This final image is going to require some explaining.

Photo collage - nighttime trail camera photos of various wildlife in our back yard

This is sort of a collage of critters that visited our back deck over the course of two evenings. Most of them require no identification (but I will provide one anyway), but there are some things worth noting. 

  1. A pair of foxes
  2. A trash panda, aka raccoon
  3. A fast-moving armadillo
  4. Skunk #1 - white back and tail
  5. Skunk #2 - standard black and white back
  6. Skunk #3 - black back and tail
  7. Ring-tailed cat (Bassariscus astutus) aka ringtail, a member of the raccoon family
  8. Not sure...it is the same small fox shown in #1?
I'm always surprised at the variety of coloration in skunks. Besides the ones pictured above, we've seen on that's almost completely white.

The ringtail was a terrific surprise. They are presumably fairly common, but also very shy and elusive, and this is only the second one we've photographed in four years of living here. As you can see, the animal's tail-to-body ratio is ridiculous.

And with respect to #8, the more I watch the video (all of these photos are screen shots of frames from videos), the more I think this is the same juvenile fox that appears in the first photo. It's a cute little rascal.

There's never a dull moment when it comes to wildlife around Casa Fire Ant.
Howdy, y'all! Today is National Intern Day and also National Chili Dog and National Chicken Wing Day, so we've sent the Gazette's army of interns out for a junk food scavenger hunt. Fingers crossed that tomorrow is National Antacid Day.

Boy, there's a lot going on nowadays in the Wonderful World of Nature, so let's just dive right in. (Notice how I worked in a reference to the Summer Olympics? Take that, interns!)

Our garage has been a focal point for a couple of observations. First, a yellow garden spider has set up shop on a shrub right outside one of the garage windows. I've watched it grow into a pretty big specimen.

Photo - Yellow garden spider showing the web's stabilimentum
That thick zig-zag is the stabilimentum.

The spider itself is not my focus today (although it does creep me out a bit), but the topic of these spiders' stabilimenta is pretty fascinating. It's one of the mysteries of nature, in that we don't really know for sure what its purpose is. Some think it's to warn away birds who might inadvertently destroy the web by flying into it; others think it's to attract prey, or simply to strengthen the web. I found this college student's essay to be a great discussion of the alternatives.

Speaking of mysteries, I've recently noticed a virtual absence of insects inside the garage, and while this is a welcome development, I can't help wondering what's causing it. That mystery was solved a few days ago.

Photo - Texas spiny lizard resting atop our treadmill
Even lizards need rest after a hard treadmill workout.

This is a Texas spiny lizard, and alert Gazette readers will recall that they have been the focus of a number of previous posts.

Photo - Texas spiny lizard resting atop our treadmill
Better -- and cheaper -- than an exterminator

I'm pretty sure that this good-sized lizard is responsible for keeping the garage relatively bug-free. There are only two downsides. The first is when I forget that he's around and turn on the light early in the morning just in time to spot him out of the corner of my eye running across the floor. And the second is...poop. I think you know what I mean.

Speaking of lizards -- and mysteries --Debbie spotted a tiny one on our front porch wall. 

Photo - Juvenile prairie lizard on the wall of our house
The doorbell is just over 2" in diameter.

Here's a closer look:

Photo - Juvenile prairie lizard on the wall of our house
Regardless of species, it was pretty chill about getting photographed.

When I first looked from a distance, I thought it was a baby anole, but immediately dismissed this idea when I got closer. Then, I figured it was a juvenile Texas spiny lizard, but the scales on the head didn't look right. I posted a photo on the Texas Reptile and Amphibian Identification Facebook page, and received several conflicting species suggestions, but the one from the most knowledgeable person was that this is a juvenile prairie lizard

That's highly interesting to me, because I've not seen one around here before. I've submitted this sighting to iNaturalist where I'm sure I'll get a definitive answer.

Switching gears, let's move on to the insect world, where once again Debbie called me over to see a grasshopper moving slowly up our sliding glass door. It was a perfect pose for a picture.

Photo - Underside of a grasshopper on a window
If you think there's something vaguely familiar here, you're not alone.

Now, we could go into a detailed discussion of the various parts of the typical grasshopper underbelly, but we all have better things to do. Still, if your curiosity remains (or appears) after your next margarita, you can visit this page, courtesy of the University of Wyoming, whose high jump team's mascot is...OK, I'm just kidding. Probably. Who knows, really? Anyway, we'll save the boring scientific and accurate stuff, because this is what I immediately saw:

Photo - Underside of a grasshopper on a window with a Photoshopped Groucho Marx disguise
"I never forget a face, but in your case I'll make an exception." -- GM

I thought about submitting this to iNaturalist but they'd probably cancel my account.

Oh, hey...we haven't checked in on the local amphibian population yet, and this next one is a doozy (I'm pretty sure I heard Groucho Marx say that once.). And, again, we can thank Debbie for it:

Photo - Gray tree frog sitting atop a bell pepper
Pepper hopper topper

This is a gray tree frog who needs to take a remedial botany course because this bell pepper plant is not now and never will be a tree. I'm also going to think twice about eating any of our peppers now.

Last year, we routinely found tree frogs under our deck chaise lounger cushions every summer morning. But when they didn't reappear this year, we feared that the Great Texas Snowpocalypse last February might have wiped them out. Fortunately, they're apparently tougher than that, and they're back under the cushions as well as on our produce.

Now, last but not least, we'll wrap things up with some mammals, and I get the credit for this sighting (which, to be honest, is nothing special, considering that you can't swing a rutabaga around here without hitting one of these guys):

Photo - White-tail deer buck, doe, and fawn lying in the grass
Olan Mills would be proud.

Every evening around 5:30 or 6:00, whitetail deer gather in the vacant lot next to our house to browse. It may be the same group, with a few variations, but there's usually several does, one or two fawns, and a buck may or may not grace them with his presence.

If you look closely, you'll see that the buck still has its velvet antlers. Here's a good source of information about deer velvet (that's not focused on its dubious uses in medicine). [This website also contains some photos and descriptions of the process of shedding the velvet and if you have a weak stomach, you might want to skip over that.]

Incidentally, browsing is different than grazing, and different species of herbivores will usually do one or the other, but not both. The distinction is important, because that's why our local lawns are safe from deer. Anytime you see a deer apparently grazing in a lawn, it's really looking for acorns or leafy weeds
Debbie and I have been monitoring the life cycle of black swallowtail butterflies, and it's a pretty fascinating process.

But, first...

I started writing this accompanied by the dulcet tones of a just-now-repaired clothes dryer, and it's a good feeling to know that we won't need to employ the makeshift fan-in-garage approach (which, I will admit, was surprisingly effective) until the next belt breaks.

Animated gif: large fan blowing a sheet around in our garage

Now, as I was saying, we've got some butterflies-in-waiting marinating on our back patio. Debbie first noticed them as tiny black worms infesting the parsley she had planted in a pot. (Don't ask me why; I have yet to encounter a dish which was improved -- or even affected -- by the addition of that herb.) She said she flicked a few of them off before she found out that they were actually the second stage in the life of a black swallowtail butterfly. The first stage is, of course, eggs, but who thinks to look for butterfly eggs on parsley plants?

Once we determined they weren't a threat to our existence, we left six of them to their own devices, and within just a few days, two things occurred. First, the parsley began to be stripped of its leaves. Second, those tiny (less than 1" long) worms morphed into these:

Photo - Black swallowtail butterfly larvae on a potted parsley plant
Three of the six original butterfly larvae (aka "caterpillars")

They were actually quite striking in appearance...

Photo - Closeup of a black swallowtail larva
Photo - Closeup of a black swallowtail larva

We didn't realize it until we did some research, but they actually have a bit of personality (if you'll excuse the anthropomorphism). If you threaten or irritate them, they expose an organ called the osmeterium which, along with an accompanying odor, is said to startle and repel predators. I was able to elicit this behavior simply by gently touching one with a gloved finger or even with a stalk of parsley.

Photo - Black swallowtail butterfly larvae with exposed osmeterium
The osmeterium is that pair of slimy-looking, orange "tentacles"

Photo - Closeup of a black swallowtail larva with exposed osmeterium

By the way, in the preceding photo you might notice that one of the caterpillars is sporting green stripes instead of white. We also learned that this means that it's one step closer to becoming a chrysalis.

And speaking of chrysalises (or chrysalides...take your pick), you probably already know that this is the last step of the transformation that results in a butterfly. But if you're like me, you may not have ever thought about the actually process in which a larva (caterpillar) becomes a chrysalis (pupa). And, in fact, I had always kinda thought of a chrysalis as being an outer covering of the caterpillar, but that's not even remotely close to what happens.

In reality, the chrysalis is the result of an amazing metamorphosis in which the caterpillar basically dissolves its own cellular structure and reshapes itself. OK, that's a tremendous oversimplification, and if you want to really delve into the biological science, here's a great place to start.

We were hoping to catch a caterpillar in the midst of this metamorphosis, but ours hid themselves from our prying eyes. However, Debbie was able to locate two of them in their chrysalis form. (Of the initial six larvae, three apparently wandered off and one didn't survive.) One of the chrysalises is now attached to a stalk of basil that was growing in the same pot as the parsley (the caterpillars showed no interest in eating basil), and the other caterpillar moved to an adjacent pot where its chrysalis form is now attached to a bougainvillea. (Update: My live-in fact checker informed me that it's a bell pepper plant, not a bougainvillea. I can't decide what needs more work, my botany skills or my memory.)

Photo - Closeup of a black swallowtail chrysalis
The first step in the metamorphosis is to spin a couple of threads to attach to the material where the chrysalis will remain for the duration.

Photo - Closeup of a black swallowtail chrysalis

We were puzzled by the blobs of material at the tail end of each chrysalis. I haven't been able to find any mention of this phenomenon, but my theory is that it's actually a small piece of the caterpillar's body that isn't metamorphosed into chrysalis form. 

Swallowtails are apparently known for their unpredictability, in that it takes anywhere from a few weeks to a few months for a butterfly (aka "imago") to emerge from the chrysalis. Their disregard for the calendar was proven as I ventured into a field outside just outside our neighborhood a couple of days ago and spotted a black swallowtail checking out the flowering weeds.

Photo - Black swallowtail butterfly in the field
Its normal lifespan is only a couple of weeks.

The life of a butterfly is short, which is a little ironic considering how long it takes to get there from its beginning as an egg. But they make the most of that short life by adding incredible beauty to the world, not to mention their value as pollinators.

Photo - Black swallowtail butterfly and bougainvillea - Midland, Texas - 2009
A dozen years ago, I watched this one frolic among bougainvillea at our home in Midland.

Got Ticks?
June 6, 2021 7:23 PM | Posted in: ,

We've had a lot of rain recently here in the Texas Hill Country, and the combination of rain and warmer weather has brought on a seasonal nuisance in the form of ticks. And, apparently, we Texans have plenty of company in that regard. 

Last week, NBC's The Today Show ran a segment on dealing with the nasty little critters. Here's a frame from that segment:

Screen capture of NBC report on dealing with ticks

This isn't a particularly helpful graphic so let me fill in some blanks for you.

Scene from The African Queen - Humphrey Bogart covered with leeches
Bogey wasn't as tough as you think; he refused to let the studio use actual leeches and insisted on rubber ones instead. Sheesh.
Common places for tick bites? Your skin.

[Important update...this just in! According to most experts, if you're reading this and have no skin, you should seek medical help immediately. You may have worse problems than ticks.]

Found a tick? Here's what you do. You rub salt on it. Wait, that's not right...I'm thinking of The African Queen. Them ain't ticks; them's leeches. But for ticks, the CDC says to use tweezers, and the CDC is never wrong.

How to prevent Lyme Disease? Avoid ticks and anyone who looks (or acts) like a tick. Mask up, if it makes you feel better. Just don't go rolling naked in the meadow. Trust me on this.

If all of this is too complicated and you find yourself covered with ticks, there are a couple of really effective remedies to try.

My recommendation is to get yourself a possum.

Surely you've seen this photo by now:

Trail camera photo of a possum eating ticks on a deer's face
Is this the tick equivalent of a Golden Corral?

In case you don't recognize the players, this is a trail camera photo of a possum dining on ticks attached to the face of a white-tail buck.  [insert your movable feast joke here] If you find this scene rather disgusting, you've never had ticks on your face whilst having your hands tied behind your back.

This photo was taken in 2019, in Vermont, of all places, but it seems to have resurfaced in a viral fashion. It's a pretty cool example of an unexpected symbiotic relationship between two species which aren't normally associated with one another. It's almost enough to give you hope for the U.S. Congress.

Now, it should be common knowledge that possums play an important role in the local ecology. They eat lots of stuff that can cause problems for us, like snakes (even venomous ones), mice, centipedes, and -- you guessed it -- ticks. They are also highly resistant to rabies due to their low body temperature. So, whenever you're tempted to diss a possum, remember its selfless service to animal kind, and give it a break.

Of course, you might find it impractical to keep a possum around just in case you need deticking. There's one more approach some of you might find attractive, and by "you" I mean "you who are young and single (or perhaps not-so-young and/or not so single; who am I to judge?) ladies who like country music." Brad Paisley could be your possum (with all due respect to George Jones).



As The Worm Dangles
April 14, 2021 9:07 AM | Posted in: ,

Imagine, if you will, a pair of drunken-yet-paradoxically-overcaffeinated zombies staggering along a tree-lined cart path on a golf course. That mental picture is not far from the reality of my and Debbie's morning runs lately. You see, we are well into the Season of Dangling Worms here in the Texas Hill Country, and the act of walking, running, or sometimes even just standing under oak trees can result in becoming draped in obnoxious fashion by...well...dangling worms.

Animated gif of an inch worm
An inch worm inches (ha!) its way across our garage floor.
Our erratic jogging movements result from mostly futile attempts to avoid the caterpillars that hang from almost invisible strands attached to every single oak limb in existence. That's almost not an exaggeration. And because the worms are tiny and their bungee cords invisible, we can't always spot them until the last second.

Our clumsy avoidance technique yields mixed results. We've taken to doing a worm check on each other after our outdoors sessions. Debbie compares it to monkeys grooming each other, although I'm not sure we're that elegant. Even so, yesterday I brought two caterpillars in with me on my shirt after our run, and Debbie later had a hitchhiker in her hair. Yes, it's all fairly disgusting.

At this exact moment in time, we have at least three different varieties of caterpillars gracing us with their presence: oak leaf rollers (on the right, in the photo below), cankerworms (also known by the less odious name of inchworms), and a larger one (on the left), whose identity remains unknown to me. [Update: The one on the left is a forest tent caterpillar. We have a fair number of them, mostly crawling on the walls of our house, but it could be much worse.]

Photo of two caterpillars of different species

The scale in the photo is misleading. The specimen on the left is at least twice the size of the leaf roller.

If there's any good news in this situation, it's that the infestation is quite short-lived. We should be past all of this in a few more days, and it's smooth sailing until *checks calendar* May, when the walnut caterpillar invasion begins. 

In the meantime, if someone tries to tell you that these little dangling creatures pose no real threat to humans, let me assure you...the truth is much more complicated and dark:

Comic strip showing caterpillars to actually be alien chest-bursters

When Birds Attack
March 17, 2021 3:32 PM | Posted in: ,

Let me dissuade you from making the obvious assumption about the title of this post: it's not about Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. It's actually much scarier.

We were finishing supper yesterday evening when I heard a *thump* and out of the corner of my eye saw not one but two birds fluttering next to one of our big windows. It appeared that at least one of them landed on the patio.

Photo - Stunned cedar waxwing after flying into a window
A slightly stunned cedar waxwing wondering what hit him.
It is unfortunately not an uncommon occurrence for birds to bang into our windows, although it's thankfully rare that any of them suffer ill effects. But I don't recall ever seeing two birds hit a window at the same time.

I rushed over to window to have a look, and sure enough, there was a dazed cedar waxwing standing -- "standing" is always a good sign -- on the patio. I figured he'd be there gathering his wits for a couple of minutes, and then would fly off, none the worse for the vitric encounter. What I didn't expect was what happened next.

Remember when I said that it appeared that two birds hit the window? Well, what I assumed to be the second one made an appearance, and it wasn't there to offer succor. Nope, it was there to finish what it started.

At the risk of seeming coy, rather than attempting to describe what happened next, I'll refer you to the following short (a little more than two minutes) video. But first, a warning:

Graphic - Fake MPAA film rating



If you averted your eyes from the video, I'll summarize it for you. The mockingbird attacks the smaller bird three times before I decide to step in and break up the fight. The mockingbird retreats, and I coax the cedar waxwing onto my finger.

Photo - Cedar waxwing perched on my finger

It seems quite content, if still a bit stunned, in the company of its protector. In fact, it shows no sign of wanting to be anywhere else...and I have things to do (like wash the dishes). I transfer it to the fence.

Photo - Cedar waxwing perched atop our back fence

I walk back to the house, checking on it every few minutes. The mockingbird shows no sign of interest (I do watch it chase away another bird that wandered into its territory). However, after ten or fifteen minutes, when the small bird hasn't yet flown away, I wonder if it is physically able to do so. 

I walk back outside and tap on the fence, and to our relief, the little bird flies into a nearby tree, seemingly without any permanent injuries.

Now, alert Gazette readers will recall that I described a scene during The Great Texas Freeze Out of a few weeks ago in which a mockingbird chased a robin away from the berry-laden yaupon in our back yard. My theory on this latest episode is that the cedar waxwing -- a known berry eater -- attempted to dine on some of the tasty yaupon fruit, and reaped the whirlwind in the form of a belligerent bullying mockingbird. In an attempt to escape the pursuit of the mockingbird, the smaller bird slammed into our window (I don't know if the mockingbird did as well, without injury, or if it pulled up just in time to avoid a collision)...and that's when the beatdown began.

The mockingbird malevolence is no surprise; anyone who has been around them for any length of time can attest to their aggressiveness. As it turns out, there have been documented instances of mockingbirds killing other birds. Debbie found this article (PDF) describing another battle over berries between a mockingbird and -- you guessed it -- a cedar waxwing. Unfortunately for the waxwing, there was no one to intervene on its behalf and it didn't survive the encounter.

Cedar waxwings are pretty little birds, and northern mockingbirds are the state bird of Texas. There's no real winner when the two species collide, but the former will almost surely always be the big loser. Sometimes, Nature needs someone to step in and even the odds. 
Alert Gazette readers will no doubt remember the pair of Egyptian geese that resided last year on the golf course nearest our house. They left for parts unknown after their lone progeny reached maturity, and we wondered if we would see them again. Based on my cursory research, they're not migratory so they'll keep to a specific vicinity as long as there's a sufficient source of water. Our local golf courses provide a consistent supply of water, so perhaps they simply moved to another spot on the course where we couldn't see them from the street.

In any event, they -- or another pair who looks suspiciously like them -- are back. We first noticed them about a month ago during a morning run on a cart path (for local readers, it's the Ram Rock course). They were hanging out near a small bridge spanning a creek about a half mile from our house.

Photo - A pair of Egyptian geese on a creek bank on the golf course

The next couple of times we ran by, at least one of the geese would waddle (or flap) petulantly away from an almost-hidden corner of the bridge and we wondered if they were nesting there.

That question was answered one morning last week when we stopped for a moment and peered down at that sheltered corner.

Photo - Nine Egyptian goose eggs on the ground

As you can see, geese are somewhat cavalier with their nest construction, and the clutch of nine eggs was not accompanied by the presence of, you know, an adult goose. That was concerning.

We were perturbed enough by the absent parents -- and the exposed eggs -- that we returned later that afternoon to check on things. We were relieved to see the following maternal tableau (although, honestly, it could have been a paternal tableau, since both parents take turns hatching the eggs).

Photo - Goose atop the clutch of eggs

We quickly left so as not to disturb the happy scene, and felt that things were once again right with the world.

Alas, our relief was short-lived. On our morning run the following day, we found this unpleasant scene:

Photo - Scattered and broken goose eggs

The eggs were scattered, several were broken and obviously consumed, and more were missing. More bits of eggshell were on the nearby bridge where a predator had apparently stopped for a meal.

Photo - Broken bits of goose eggshell

The pair of geese were about fifty feet away, across the creek. If they were devastated by the dastardly development, they gave no sign, but their vigil was still a bit heart-rending.

Photo - The pair of geese near the destroyed nest

There's no way to know for sure what animal(s) did the damage. My guess is that it was either a raccoon or a fox, but it also could have been a skunk, possum, or even an armadillo (they've been known to dig up and eat turtle eggs).

Honestly, though, this was not a huge surprise. The nest was not well hidden, and although geese are protective of their nest, they're no match for a predator like a fox or raccoon. Raccoons often are found foraging in pairs and two of them could definitely overpower even the most committed geese.

If there's any good news here, it's that the geese have moved downstream, closer to our house, and to the area where they managed to raise progeny last year. So, there's still the possibility that we'll see goslings at some point this spring.

Steam Fog on Lake LBJ
October 28, 2020 7:50 PM | Posted in: ,

Folks who live in close proximity to Lake LBJ no doubt noticed an eerie phenomenon yesterday. Even though it was not a foggy day, the lake was covered with a thick blanket of what looked like smoke or mist...and the windy conditions blew that fog across the sky so that at times it did resemble smoke from a wildfire. 

It was a malevolant presence, likely concealing horrible apparitions. Although that could have been my imagination, given that this is the week of Halloween and I may have watched the movie adaptation of Stephen King's novel The Mist a few too many times. 

In reality, what we were witnessing was a meteorological phenomenon known as steam fog (aka steam smoke, water smoke, sea mist, etc.). It's not uncommon in these parts, but it's rarely as thick as it was yesterday. In fact, for most of the day, the surface of the lake was completely obscured.

Steam fog occurs when cold, dry air moves across the surface of warmer water. So when that frigid cold front blew in Monday night and dropped temperatures a couple of scores of degrees, we got to witness the result of textbook conditions for the creation of steam fog.

I spent a half hour or so taking some photos of Lake LBJ in an attempt to capture some of the mysterious-looking fog. Here's a photo of the Wirtz Dam shrouded in fog. The area between the dam in the background and the trees in the foreground is all lake.

Photo - Steam Fog over Lake LBJ (Horseshoe Bay, Texas)

This photo below shows Horseshoe Bay Resort (foreground) and some condominium complexes (mid-ground). The long thin row of trees along the background is Lighthouse Drive, and you might be able to vaguely make out the northern shore of Lake LBJ. Again, the strips of fog are resting on what would normally be seen as water.

Photo - Steam Fog over Lake LBJ (Horseshoe Bay, Texas)

Of course, the steam fog phenomenon isn't always scary or eerie. It can create quite a beautiful scene, such as the early spring occurrence on the creek behind our house, as shown below.

Photo - Steam Fog on the surface of Pecan Creek (Horseshoe Bay, Texas)

I'm not normally a fan of frigid, windy weather, but when it results in amazing phenomena like steam fog on the lake, it's hard not to be impressed.

Caterpillar Complaints and Captures
October 16, 2020 11:24 AM | Posted in: ,

Spoof of Indiana Jones movie still

Alert Gazette readers will recall my lament from last spring regarding an infestation of walnut caterpillars and their fecal flotsam. Well...lucky us. It turns out that these creatures make twice annual appearances -- spring AND fall -- and we're now in the middle of their curtain call.

This is also the time of year that the pecan trees begin to drop their leaves, so we're dealing not only with caterpillar poop falling onto our deck from the trees in our back yard, but also the leaves. My mid-morning ritual now consists of firing up the leaf blower in an attempt to bring a modicum of order to the deck and back porch. Of course, those efforts yield results that last at best a half hour or so, but, like Sisyphus pushing that rock, my fate is simply to keep trying.

Now, all of this is annoying enough, but this is also the time of year when the walnut caterpillars launch themselves from the tree and rain down like multi-legged storm troopers. In the past, we've tried (a) ignoring them, (b) sweeping them, and (c) squishing them. The first approach proved unworkable, the second was futile, and the third was gross. So, this time around I've initiated Option D: harvesting them. 

Equipped with leather gloves and a bucket, I've picked up literally hundreds of caterpillars. I realize that for every one I catch, there are probably a hundred more that go...somewhere. But I figure that for every one I catch, that's one less to deal with next spring when the next generation hatches.

I haven't figured out their life cycle or behavioral patterns. I mean, they drop out of the trees, but then immediately find the nearest wall and start climbing back up again. I don't know; maybe it's like an amusement park ride to them. But it's a somewhat unsettling thing to stand on the back porch to watch -- and hear...they make a faint but obvious plop when they hit -- them fall. They seem to be slightly stunned when they hit the deck, but quickly recover and start crawling around.

Anyway, I'm collecting caterpillars by the bucket, and the creepiness factor increases when you look into said bucket. The following scene brings to mind the phobia of Indiana Jones:

Animated gif of walnut caterpillars crawling around in a bucket
They could be really short snakes.

As with most things, this too shall pass. At least walnut caterpillars don't transmit COVID-19.

Do they?
Happy Friday, folks! We've got a lot of ground to cover today so try to keep up. (Just kidding. If you're here for the pictures, there's plenty; if you're a former Playboy reader and have just stopped by for the articles, there're a few things for you, as well, but none of it requires your rapt attention.)

First, please join me in congratulating the 80th guest at the Fire Ant Armadillo Lodge:

Photo - armadillo being released from trap
He's a little camera shy.

Armadillo Ochenta -- as he prefers to be called -- won a fabulous prize of an extended vacation in an undisclosed location somewhere between Austin and San Angelo. Enjoy, #80, and feel free not to visit again!

We've recently had a number of interesting visitors besides #80. Yesterday afternoon Debbie glanced toward the back patio and exclaimed "what's that?!" I followed her pointing finger and saw that she wasn't looking outside at all, but rather at the track of our sliding glass door. This little fellow was attempting, and failing, to look inconspicuous.

I grabbed him, carefully trying not to break his tail, and he responded to my gentle grasp with a gaping maw that informed me that he was ready and able to inflict significant mayhem on anyone and anything within snapping distance. He, too, was released on his own recognizance to one of our flowerbeds.

Photo - green anole in my hand
Anole in hand is the same as in a bush, only more comical.

And, no...it's not a snake. It's a green anole. So cool your jets.

Not all our visitors are as harmless or comical. I watched this one stroll around the grounds until he felt at home.*

Animation of redheaded centipede
I count only twenty-one pairs of legs. So, more arthropodic braggadocio.

This is a Giant Redheaded centipede, aka a Texas Redheaded centipede (not to be confused with the Texas Red Headed Stranger). This one was about six or seven inches long (I tried unsuccessfully to get it to stand still for an exact measurement; it had a bad case of jimmy legs). 

Centipedes are horrifying to look at and, yes, they are slightly venomous. But they do fill an ecological niche by eating other insects and even snakes. That's all well and good as long as they stay outside. Unfortunately, they don't always respect our boundaries.

Let's shift gears to something a little more cuddly. Alert Gazette readers will recall that we are regularly visited by tree frogs. In fact, almost every morning we find two of them hidden beneath the cushions of the chaise loungers on the back deck, and they spend the day there. And every evening, they leave to do whatever nocturnal amphibians do when the sun goes down.

Occasionally, though, we'll find them in different spots -- invariably cool and shady spots -- during the day. Here's one that was resting in the foliage of a potted bell pepper plant on the deck.

Photo - tree frog amongst pepper plant leaves
Move along. I'm not the droid you're looking for.

But enough of the Animalia kingdom; let's talk fungi.

I was roaming around the adjacent vacant lot, wearing snake boots and carrying a weedeater, much to the bafflement of the golfers across the fence, and came upon this scene:

Photo - plants growing on top of fungus growing on a dead tree trunk
A pyramid scheme of life

I realize this isn't all that interesting at first glance...and possibly not at second or third glance. But work with me here. There's a big, dead, partially rotted tree stump lodged in the ground. And on that stump is a tree fungus (bottom center in the photo), somehow finding nourishment in that woody corpse. But -- and here's what I found rather fascinating -- in the center of that fungus there are green leafy plants taking root. I don't know what kind of plants they are, but wouldn't it be cool if they're baby trees? Talk about the circle of life.

Well, I can see you don't share my enthusiasm for symbiotic relationships among flora living and dead. That's fine. But what about a mushroom that looks like a flower? Is that more to your liking?

Of course, anything worth posting is worth Photoshopping, and while this mushroom has an interesting shape, I feel it's a bit lacking in the coloring department. So, I've "helped" it along. Drag that vertical yellow bar to the left to see what I mean.

Photo - mushroom that looks like a flower 'Photo - Photoshopped mushroom that looks like a flower
Drag that yellow line. You know you want to.

Up next: some raccoon photos, and perhaps a beaver video. Stay tuned!

*Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Feel free to hum the song from which this lyrical phrase comes.
It's been a stressful week around here, for reasons that I won't go into. I tell you that simply as an excuse -- as if I really need one -- to not tax my brain by attempting to come up with with any of the witty, pithy, and wise words that I know you all come here to get. *cough*

Nope, I just want to show you some pictures.

So, is there a term for the time that occurs about an hour after sunrise, or about an hour before sunset? Early morning? Late afternoon? That seems too easy. Eh, whatever. Here are two photos taken along Texas State Highway 71 down the road from Horseshoe Bay, at almost the same spot but ten hours apart on Monday, September 28th. The first is the "after sunrise" scene; the second is the "before sunset" picture. God does good work.

Photo - Cloud formations in Central Texas
Photo - Cloud formations in Central Texas

I think we can all agree that praying mantises are cool. Well, except for those of us who think they're terrifying. It's not really their fault that they have those googly eyes that follow you and peer deep into your very soul while they plot your imminent demise. OTOH, maybe they're just curious. Anyway, most of them look like the gal (or guy; I have no idea) shown below, right? Very, very green. It makes for great camouflage on plants; maybe not so much on a downspout.

Photo - Green praying mantis

So, green isn't a great camo color for every setting. It appears that some mantids have figured that out and have adapted. Take this guy (or girl...I have no idea), for example. I noticed it crouching on the pavement in our cul-de-sac while I was using the leaf blower (an activity not unlike sweeping the beach, but that's another less photogenic story).

Photo - Gray praying mantis
Photo - Gray praying mantis
Photo - Gray praying mantis

Now that, my friend, is effective camouflage! Well, except for the glaring shadow, but transparency is not a strong suite of most living creatures. That coloring will work well on tree bark, which I assume is a more normal habitat than the middle of the street.

AFAIK, mantids can change colors only very slightly, so this is a different species than la campamocha verde shown above. Still got those weird googly eyes, though.

While we're on the subject of insects that sport different colors than usual, here's a cicada that was on our driveway. Most of these guys are also on the greenish end of the spectrum.

Photo - Brown cicada

I think this is a pretty great scheme, and evokes the colors of the Black Knights of West Point. Feel free to suggest to someone that they should change their name to the West Point Cicadas (and be sure to let us know how that turns out).

Last but not least, while rolling snake eyes can be a VBT (Very Bad Thing) in a game of craps -- although I know about as much about shooting dice as I do about playing cricket, i.e. less than nothing -- not all snake eyes are eeeeeevvvvviiiiiilllllll. In fact, the eyes on this six-inch-long DeKay's brownsnake are much less creepy than those on the praying mantises above. But, YMMV.

Photo - Closeup of the eye of a DeKay's brownsnake

Thanks for indulging me. I'm not as stressed as I was before. And I never drink while blogging, so lose that thought.
Editor's note: The Editorial Board here at the Gazette has grudgingly come to accept that rudimentary animations in the form of gifs -- pronounced with a soft "g" -- must be tolerated, much as one tolerates the annoying-but-inescapable social behavior of toddlers and politicians. That said, the Board has put strict limits on the use of these crude illustrations in order to maintain the journalistic credibility of this publication. Sadly, the author of the following post has chosen to blatently disregard these limits. Please accept our apologies, and know that we condemn such insolence in the strongest of terms.

Author's note: Ha!

Hey, you guys...there's really not very much interesting going on around here nowadays, so I've had to resort to manipulative creative approaches in order to transform the prosaic into the phenomenal.

Time-lapse photos of a plant wilting in the heatFor example, remember when I was telling you about how hot our courtyard gets during the day? Of course, you do. Well, just to reinforce that fascinating story, I've enlisted one of our resident plants -- whose name I've forgotten -- to reenact the deleterious effects of said heat. You can see the result via a mesmerizing time-lapse sequence, over to the right.

By the way, the creation of this gif took an embarrassingly large amount of time and effort; I trust you appreciate the lengths I go to in order to educate and entertain.

As long as we're in the courtyard, at least mentally, I want to talk with you about what goes on out there in the middle of the night. Well, almost nothing, to be honest. But the little that is happening is a bit creepy. 

I've got my trail camera set up to take a photo every five minutes, 24/7, whether anything moves or not (it's also simultaneously configured to capture video if something does move). Each morning, I review the pictures from the previous day and night, an exercise that takes less time than you might expect given that nothing generally happens.

However, I have noticed that at some point in the wee hours of the morning, something emerges from beneath the flagstones, something tiny but whose eyes reflect the infrared flash of the camera and appear as tiny pinpricks of light in the darkness. Take a look at what I'm talking about:

Animated gif of tiny frogs whose eyes shine in the dark

These creatures appear like clockwork every night, and I've concluded that they're tiny frogs. (They could also be spiders but I refuse to contemplate that possibility as it ratchets up the creepiness factor to unacceptable levels.)

Warning: Snakes Ahead

(The preceding is presented as a public service to those readers with a abnormal perfectly understandable aversion of our neighbors of the serpentine persuasion. If you fall into this category please seek therapy click here to jump to some squirrel-related stuff.)

A few days ago, Debbie was in the back yard testing the sprinklers in one of our flowerbeds, which actually doesn't have any flowers, but is filled with big liriopes. A movement caught her eye and she discovered a small snake threaded through the leaves of one of the plants, apparently enjoying the impromptu shower.

She texted me (I was in the house doing something important, like taking a nap) and I grabbed my DSLR with a macro lens and took a few photos. I couldn't identify the species but she had an educated guess (which turned out to be correct, of course). We posted one of the photos to the Central Texas Snake ID Facebook Group, which has become one of our daily references, and the experts that administer that group identified it as a western coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum testaceus).

Coachwhips are nonvenomous, beneficial snakes that prey upon other lizards, amphibians, and varmints such as rats and mice. They will also eat other snakes...including venomous varieties such as rattlesnakes. In other words, they're good neighbors.

Ours was only 18" in length, but coachwhips can grow to be six feet or longer. As their common name implies, they are extremely fast snakes. They are shy and will flee when approached, but if cornered and/or handled, they won't hesitate to bite. Again, they're not venomous, but nobody wants a snake bite, right?

Following are a couple of the photos I took of the water-beaded coachwhip.

Photo - Western coachwhip among the leaves of a liriope
Photo - Western coachwhip among the leaves of a liriope

The little guy posed patiently for photos and admiring comments from onlookers, then disappeared under the plants after the water turned off. Debbie spotted it the next morning in almost the same location. We assume that it's dining on the tiny frogs that inhabit the back yard (and, possibly, the front courtyard...as we've already discussed above).

Relax: No More Snakes

Now, onto to last matter, and we welcome back those of you who chose to skip the preceding fascinating content.

We've got about eleventy billion squirrels in our neighborhood. As I've mentioned before, despite being surrounded by pecan trees, and living in a neighborhood named after pecans, we never get any because the squirrels harvest them all. But that's not what I want to tell you about. 

If you have squirrels around you, you've probably heard them on occasion chattering in the trees in a state of apparent alarm or anger. Sometimes their diatribes are directed at other squirrels (hey, you &#%^$^, that was MY pecan!) but they also seem to raise a general alarm when something threatening is nearby.

I was in our front yard when I heard this kind of commotion coming from an oak tree. The squirrel making the noise was fairly quivering with disapproval of...something. My first thought was that it had spotted a snake in the lawn, or even in a tree, as rat snakes are fairly common around here and they are amazing climbers. So, I walking into the grass beneath the tree where the squirrel was still expressing its displeasure, but I saw nothing. 

I looked around, still seeing no threat, and was about to go back inside, chalking up the squirrel's theatrics to inscrutable squirrel behavior, when I glanced up in a tree about 25' away. Perched there in the fork of two big limbs was a rather good-sized hawk, and the raptor was the obvious target of the squirrel's alarm. 

I found the tableau amusing, as the hawk had its back turned to the distraught squirrel, as if to say "I know you are but what am I" or something equally childish.

Animated gif of a squirrel in one tree and a hawk in another

I created a short video to capture what I'm now referring to as the Early Squirrel Warning System. Be on the lookout; it's coming to your neighborhood if it's not already there. 




One late afternoon last week, Debbie was looking out a dining room window and spotted a strange sight in the courtyard. She called me over to have a look, and for the next couple of hours, we watched a fascinating process unfold.

Alert Gazette readers will recall the previous post in which I described, by word and by photograph, the behaviors of the three most common species of lizards around our house. I mentioned the Texas spiny lizard only in passing - I didn't have a relevant photo to share - commenting only that it is skittish and secretive. So, we felt privileged to witness the scene taking place in the courtyard: a female of that species digging a nest, laying eggs, and then covering and leaving them to hatch.

Naturally, I took photos of the process. I must apologize in advance for the poor quality of most of them. Some were taken at a very odd angle through the window, and some are just the product of an old camera and an older photographer. But I think you'll be able to discern all the subjects, and I hope you'll share our wonder at seeing something that's rarely witnessed by humans.

What first caught Debbie's eye was the half-buried lizard busy excavating a hole. We initially thought she was perhaps digging for insects to eat, but the hole seemed too big for that.

Photo - Texas spiny lizard digging a nest

While I was trying to get photos, Debbie was busy finding out more about the nesting habits of the lizard. She found this very informative website which seemed to confirm that what we were watching was indeed a nest building exercise. (The photos are better, too...but more limited in scope than what follows.) That article describes the preferred site for a nest as being one with fairly dry, loose soil, good sun exposure, which also happens to be a perfect description of our courtyard in every respect.

Photo - Texas spiny lizard female backed into nest

Once the hole was several inches deep, the female backed into it. At that point, sensing that things were about to get real, I crept out into the courtyard and tried to get some pictures without disturbing her. I was successful in the latter; the results of the former are fairly sad.

Photo - Texas spiny lizard laying eggs
Photo - Texas spiny lizard eggs

In the top photo, you can just make out a couple of eggs in the nest. That's a far cry from the eight to 30 mentioned in the article, but perhaps the others were buried before I got the photo. Or maybe she's just an underachiever. The bottom photo is a little clearer. They do resemble bird eggs, so perhaps that theory linking birds and dinosaurs in the evolutionary chain isn't farfetched at all.

Once the eggs were deposited, the lizard got busy covering them...and I do mean busy! In fact, for the next hour she devoted herself to restoring the ground over the eggs to its original state. This behavior is common among reptiles, and I've documented it for turtles a couple of times previously.

Photo - Texas spiny lizard hiding the nest

The nest hiding process went something like this. She would back partway into the hole, then use her front feet to send loose soil backwards. That loose soil was then flung into the hole by her back feet. She would periodically pause in these efforts to turn around and push the fill dirt with her snout to compact it. This sequence was repeated countless times until the nest was completely covered and undetectable to the casual observer.

Animated GIF of lizard covering up nest
"Our" spiny lizard busily hiding her nest

Midway through the process, things took an unexpected and captivating turn, as a six-lined racerunner entered the scene. At first, it came within a few feet of the spiny lizard and then headed off, but then it turned around as if curious and actually made contact with the female. Here are a couple more photos of the encounter. Again, my apologies for the photography; these were taken through the dining room window with the camera at a very uncomfortable angle.

Photo - Texas spiny lizard encounters a six-lined racerunner
Photo - Texas spiny lizard encounters a six-lined racerunner

We feared that we were about to witness one or both of the following: an attempt by the racerunner to dig into the nest, and a fight to the death between the two lizard species. In reality, neither occurred. The racerunner really did just seem curious, and the spiny lizard, while cautious and protective, didn't act belligerent toward the racerunner. After a bit of scrambling around, the racerunner disappeared under the flagstone, which presumably covered its lair.
After this brief encounter, the spiny lizard continued hiding the nest, and about two hours later, apparently satisfied with her efforts, disappeared. Her job was finished; she will not return to the nest (spiny lizards are typically arboreal; they blend in perfectly with tree bark), and if all goes well, the eggs will hatch within about 45 days.
Update (06/16/2020): After I posted this I realized that I had forgotten to mention a rather fascinating -- and surprising -- behavior on the part of the lizard. When she was about 3/4 finished with the coverup process, I went out into the courtyard to take some photos. I tried to move slowly and quietly so as not to disturb her, but she bolted away from the nest and out of sight on the porch. We figured that the camouflage effort was finished and would have to suffice.

But, much to our surprise, after I went back in the house, she returned to the nest and continued to scrape dirt and rocks back over the nest until it was finished. The primal urge to protect her eggs is strong and apparently irresistible, even though she'll have nothing to do with them once that task is finished. Put another way...she takes pride in her work, but has a pretty narrow definition of the scope of that work.
Here's how the nesting area looked following her camouflaging efforts. 

Photo - Texas spiny lizard's hidden nest

Debbie and I will, of course, monitor the situation over the next six weeks and, assuming nothing obviously untoward happens, I plan to place a GoPro camera on a tripod to take timelapse photos of what we hope will be the emergence of at least a couple of brand spanking new Texas spiny lizards.
Fake MPAA rating for this post warning you about its provocative content

I don't know whether it's because we've been stuck at home more this year, but I've noticed more evidence than ever before that spring in our neighborhood is a matter of life and death...and I'm not talking about COVID-19 at all.

If the Circle of Life was unrolled and laid flat in a trend line, we've spotted examples of the significant points along that line. To wit...

In the beginning

We have three species of lizards living in our neighborhood: the six-lined racerunner (Aspidoscelis sexlineatus) , the green anole (Anolis carolinensis) and its less-plentiful cousin, the brown anole, and the Texas spiny lizard (Sceloporus olivaceus). The three each have unique "personalities" and behaviors -- the racerunners are like inquisitive two-year-olds around kitchen drawers, the anoles (at least the males) are pugnacious and territorial, and the TSLs are skittish and secretive. But they all have one thing in common: a strong desire to make little lizards. And, for some reason, our courtyard seems to be the preferred make-out location.

Photo - Anoles mating
Photo - Six-lined racerunners mating

Both the anole (top photo) and racerunner (bottom) females will lay eggs that will hatch in less than two months.

By the way, I'm not sure why it is, but a noticeable percentage of the lizard population around here are missing parts of their tails, as you may have noticed with the female anole and the male racerunner. Fortunately, they'll both regenerate those tails.

New life...or not

So, after making whoopee, the next point along the Great Trend Line of Life (GTLL) is -- can you guess? -- babies...assuming everything goes according to plan. When it does, it's very cool. I've written at length about the new family of hawks next door, but not all the life stories end that happily.

About a year ago, I documented the nesting and egg-laying behavior of a river cooter, and the predation of that nest by an armadillo. I assumed this was a rather isolated event, but this spring I've found four such ravaged nests just in the vacant lot adjacent to ours. Here's an example, with the background faded to highlight the destroyed eggshells.

Photo - Turtle nest attacked and eggs devoured

The hole at the top of the photo is where the eggs were originally buried; the white slivers are all that remain of the leathery eggs.

Fortunately, nature has a way of compensating for these destructive events via the sheer number of nests that are built and eggs laid, and our populations of red eared sliders and river cooters seems quite healthy. And so we occasionally get treated to scenes like the one below (excuse the poor long-distance phone photography) of a tiny turtle sunning itself atop a big one. Are they related? Who knows? But they both appear content.

Photo - Tiny turtle on top of big turtle

Life is a gift, if you can keep it

But, of course, life can be a zero sum game in the world of nature. The food chain is pretty immutable; eaters get eaten, and sometimes bad decisions are fatal.

As an example of the latter, here's a hummingbird who kamikazied into one of our windows. I'm sure that everyone with a feeder has seen this happen at some point in the past, and it's always tragic.

Deceased hummingbird


Life seems to be particularly nasty, brutish, and short if you're an insect (you're not, by the way, so don't worry). For example, you might encounter an assassin bug. When that happens, the prognosis is grim. Just ask the May beetle in the following photo (but don't expect an answer).

Photo - Assassin bug sucking the life out of a beetle

This pair was on our back porch. If you look closely, you'll see the assassin bug's proboscis inserted into the belly of the beetle, whose life is slowly being drained. We don't mourn this passing because the beetle is a pest, like much of the assassin bug's other prey, so the bug may be ugly (and it is capable of giving a human a nasty little puncture if handled) but it's a beneficial guest in a garden or yard.

The assassin bug is also tenacious. As I attempted to photograph this behavior, it tried to back away from my presence...but it never let go of its prey. You've got to admire someone (or something) that's willing to fight for its dinner.

Another occupant of the "death point" on the GTLL is the moth shown below...or at least, what's left of it.

Photo - Cope's gray tree frog eating a moth

We've noticed that tree frogs have taken to hiding beneath the cushions of the chaise lounges on our deck, in obvious defiance of the dangers of being squished. So, we've started looking under the cushions to help them avoid any embarrassing flattening. Early one morning, I pulled a cushion back and uncovered this Cope's gray tree frog (Dryophytes chrysoscelis) in the middle of a tasty breakfast of moth.

So, in this version of the zero sum game, the moth's life energy is converted into the frog's ability to continue waking us up in the middle of the night by singing its unique arrangement of Bohemian Rhapsody outside our bedroom window.

By the way, there are actually two almost identical species of gray tree frogs, and they can be distinguished pretty much only by their calls. Both have that bright orange or gold stripe on each back leg that you can see in the photo. I'm guessing that this one is a Cope's gray tree frog, but that's only because the Wikipedia photos look similar. And, really, from the moth's perspective, it's not important.

So, there you have it -- the amazing and intriguing and disturbing facets of natural life in the Fire Ant neighborhood. If there's a silver lining in the COVID cloud, it's the [forced] opportunity to slow down and observe more closely what's going on around us.

I leave you with one last tree frog photo. You'll have to guess what happened to him/her/it.

Photo - Cope's gray tree frog
Alert Gazette readers will recall that only two days ago, I predicted that the juvenile red-shouldered hawks next door would be leaving the nest "within the next couple of weeks." Well, we discovered today that my prediction was off by only...well...a couple of weeks.

I walked outside early this morning in time to see one of the youngsters glide from the nesting tree, across the vacant lot, and land in a tree about a hundred feet away. A white-tailed doe was grazing below and the hawk seemed to be fixated on it, as it hopped from branch to branch following the deer. The doe was obviously much too large to be prey, but it was still an object of apparent curiosity. The hawk eventually disappeared from sight into the the thick stand of live oaks bordering the golf course.

Turning my attention back to the tree with the nest, the other two juveniles were resting on branches near their previous home. The nest itself looked tattered, just a haphazard mass of twigs, half of which was now hanging from a branch below the original location. As I told someone later, imagine what your house might look like if you left three teenagers alone in it for a period of time (no offense to the young hawks, of course). However, Debbie and I also wondered if the adults had destroyed the nest as a not-so-subtle hint to the kids that it was time to move on.

Two juvenile hawks ready to leave the nest
These two appear ready to follow their sibling's example by setting out on their own.

Late this afternoon, only one juvenile remained in the tree. As I mentioned in the previous post, the hawk's eggs don't hatch simultaneously, so the three siblings won't necessarily be at the same stage of development at any given time. But they seem to  mature very rapidly and those differences don't have any significant impact.

It's been a fascinating process to observe, from a mother incubating eggs, to newborn nestlings, and from "teenaged" fledglings to young hawks ready to strike out on their own. I'm sure we'll spot them in the skies from time-to-time, and perhaps a couple will return to build another nest and restart the cycle.

Frickin' Frass
May 29, 2020 7:02 PM | Posted in: ,

Re: the post title -- pardon my French. Except in this case, "frass" is actually German.

As long as we're on the subject of disgusting worm-related phenomenon, lately we've been dealing with an infestation of walnut caterpillars on our pecan trees. It's bad enough that they're not abiding by their names -- no one in their right mind would mistake a pecan for a walnut -- but they're also using our back yard as an outhouse. Just look at this photo:

Photo - Caterpillar castings or frass

That's horrible, isn't it. No, wait...I'm not talking about the condition of the deck, which is in obvious need of refinishing. I'm referring to those black specks, which are caterpillar frass, aka castings, aka poop. The caterpillars in our trees are producing generating prolific quantities of frass, to the point where we (and by "we" I obviously mean "Debbie") are having to sweep off the deck several times daily.

You're probably familiar with the book Everyone Poops, and that's obviously true even for insects in most stages of their life cycles. I accept this as a perfectly natural phenomenon, no different than the exhalation of CO2 by mammals during breathing or the squishing of bodily fluids when one steps on a walnut caterpillar who has the poor judgment to temporarily cease pooping and venture down from the tree.

And it's not as though caterpillar excrement has no redeeming qualities. In fact, it (and all of its insect cousins' output) is high in nutrient value for your gardening enterprise. Unsurprisingly, you can buy bags of bug poo from Amazon. I don't want to know the details of how someone manages to fill a bag. (That link leads to a product that is described as containing exudate matter of black fly larvae. So, so dignified, especially if you hear it spoken with a British accent.)

Pestiferous as the prodigious poop production may be, it's more frustrating that we can't spot the exudate actors. The caterpillars are seemingly camouflage experts because we have yet to spot one in the trees.

As with most of these natural phenomena, this too shall pass. In the meantime, while How To Train Your Dragon may be more entertaining, I'd really like for someone to produce How To Housebreak Your Caterpillar. And I'd like to be able to go out on our deck without an umbrella.

Comic about a poop deck. Sorry not sorry.
Yes, poop deck is a real thing. Just not with caterpillars.

I was on our front walkway this morning and noticed what I thought was a really skinny earthworm inching its way across the pavers. Upon closer inspection, I decided it wasn't an earthworm but I had no clue as to what it was. Its distinguishing feature was a flat, paddle-like head with what appeared to be eyes. I know we have worm snakes in this area, although I've never seen one. This didn't look like a snake, but, again, my experience with them is non-existent.

I decided to gently nudge its tail to see its reaction...and to my surprise, it stuck to my finger. I was so shocked that I flung it across the yard where it disappeared in the grass, thereby ensuring I would not be able to identify it.

However, as I continued to inspect the walkway I found several others. I took some photos, then googled "long slender worms with flat heads" and was able to quickly identify the creature as a land planarian, most likely a Bipalium kewense -- and also referred to as a hammerhead flatworm -- which, according to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension website, is the most frequently found flatworm species in Texas.

They're not pretty critters.

Photo - Land Planarian

They also don't behave in a civilized manner, at least from my perspective, as they prey on earthworms, and not in a delicate fashion: they essentially grab the worm via the sticky mucus that coats their body and begin to digest the living worm. In fairness, they also prey on slugs, so they have at least one redeeming quality. 

Land planarians are not native to the US, having arrived here in some fashion from Southeast Asia many years ago.

Here's a better look at the head, and some interesting (also gross) facts about its anatomy via this website:
The head is usually shaped like a half-moon or arrowhead. There may even be eyespots present but the land planarian does not have actual eyes. Its mouth is located mid-way down the body (on its lower or ventral side) and its mouth also serves as its anus.

Photo - Land Planarian

We don't have a slug problem around here, and we do have a lot of beneficial earthworms, so destruction of the flatworms is a net benefit. However, they are apparently hard to kill. You can chop them up, but the pieces will each regenerate into a new worm. (Flatworms in general are like that, you know.) The recommended method of sending them across the Worm Rainbow Bridge is to spray them with orange oil; furniture polish will suffice.

We did find one source that recommended dropping them into hot water to instantly kill them. I tried that approach, and the flatworm contracted to a fraction of its original size. The photo below is a closeup on the head of the dead flatworm, which I think is lying on its back. I'm guessing that the white splotch further down is that dual-purpose orifice mentioned above.

Photo - Land Planarian

Neither Debbie nor I have ever seen one of these creatures before -- and we're both quite interested in and observant of our natural surroundings -- and so we wondered why they were now appearing in semi-abundance. The recent heavy rainfall might have brought them out of hiding, but more likely they emerged from something we did ourselves.

Yesterday, we (and by "we" I mean Debbie) put down 400 pounds of "Texas Native Enriched Top Soil" in our courtyard which is mere feet away from where the flatworms appeared. We had purchased the topsoil earlier in the day from Home Depot. This is a suspicious "coincidence." The company that manufacturers (can you manufacture dirt?) is based in Cedar Park, TX, about an hour away, but there's no indication on the bag where the soil originates from. Anyway, be advised of the possibility that you might be getting more than just top soil. One of the previously linked websites suggests heat sterilizing any soil brought in from outside, but that is not exactly an elegant solution.

We disposed of four or five more flatworms, and no more appeared so we hope we nipped the invasion in the bud. And we now know more about flatworms than we ever hoped to.

Photo - Empty plastic bag which contained the topsoil
This is a bag that the topsoil was packaged in.

This is the third in an ongoing series of posts about the fascinating details of nature in our figurative Texas Hill Country back yard. Part 1 is here and Part 2 here.


Sure, birds and [some] reptiles are cute and cuddly, and [most] insects are not, but that doesn't mean that they're not attractive, even when they're a bit scary.

Take the pipevine swallowtail caterpillar, for example. As shown below, it looks like something out of a Tim Burton movie, with those nasty-looking black "horns" and the contrasting orange dots. This one was inching aimlessly around on our driveway, and I had to google it to identify it. But when I discovered its identity, and followed the logical trail to its metamorphosis, I found that it eventually becomes something out of an 1950s Walt Disney animated movie. Drag the yellow bar left to reveal the beauty of the pipevine swallowtail butterfly. Butterfly photo borrowed from this website; uncredited photographer.

I'm not sure I've ever seen a pipevine swallowtail (aka blue swallowtail) IRL, and I don't know much about them. But according to this excellent article, the larvae are distasteful if not downright poisonous to the predators that would feed on them, because they "sequester" acids from the plants they feed on. So their menacing exterior is a warning about their deadly interior.

Photo - Pipevine Swallowtail Caterpillar 'Photo - Pipevine Swallowtail Caterpillar

Speaking of butterflies, here's a photo I originally posted to my Instagram account. The butterfly is a Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia). I did a teensy bit of Photoshopping to make the colors of the butterfly stand out.

Photo - Common Buckeye butterfly
Our lawn isn't really black. As far as you know.

Dragonflies (which are neither dragons nor flies, but then the same sort of misnomer applies to butterflies) are nature's Top Guns. I didn't make that up; someone else did. I just stole borrowed it. Anyway, they look like they're assembled for aggressive action...except maybe for this one:

Photo - Dragonfly on crape myrtlePhoto - Dragonfly on crape myrtle
Anyone know how to reset a dislocated dragonfly shoulder?

I've never seen one with the wings folded forward like this. It was in our back yard, perched on the end of a crape myrtle branch (which I don't think is going to win any awards for blooms this year). It was rather windy, and perhaps the dragonfly was just trying to steady itself in the breeze. I hope it didn't throw anything out of joint.

Let's talk about something else.

Flowers are great, aren't they, especially when they pop up in unexpected places or assume unexpected shapes.

Last week, Debbie and I went on a long walk up (literally; the road rises 100' every mile, on average) the main road through our part of town. The traffic isn't usually heavy because it's essentially a residential street, but on this particular morning, there was a steady stream of cars and trucks going both directions (it's a wide, divided thoroughfare with an equally wide landscaped median so there's little danger to pedestrians). We were puzzled, and wondered if we'd somehow missed an evacuation order related to a gas leak or zombie outbreak. 

After about a mile of walking, we spotted the morning glory shown below just a few yards off the road. It was just the single flower amongst the thick undergrowth of a couple of trees. It was begging to be a photographic subject, so I obliged it. I share all of this only to say that while we stood on the curb, pointing to and discussing the flower, the traffic coming our way slowed to a crawl as curious drivers tried to see what had captured our attention. People will rubberneck at anything.

Photo - Morning Glory
Sometimes, less is more.

Oh, in care you're curious about the unusual volume of traffic, it turns out there was a major traffic accident on Highway 71, a mile or two west of where we were. A section of the highway was closed down for a couple of hours, and the street we were on was the only detour route available to traffic going to or coming from Austin.

There's no particular story behind the next photo; I just like it. It's an emerging agapanthus bloom on a plant in our courtyard. It's taking FOR. EVER. for this this one to fully open. I guess it's confused by our hot-then cold-then hot again weather, and is waiting for things to stabilize. I've got news for you, buddy...this is Texas and it ain't happening.

Photo - Agapanthus bloom about to open
Is this the flowering equivalent to sticking your hand out a window to see if it's raining?

Here's another photo that I find most pleasing. It's the foliage of a Persian Shield (Strobilanthes) that Debbie has planted in a pot on our front porch.

Photo - Foliage on a Persian Shield (Strobilanthes)
This is our tribute to Prince Rogers Nelson (RIP)

I was going to post a photo of the bloom on our aloe vera plant, but it's even slower to actually open up than the agapanthus, so I'll just wait until it does.

Thanks for sticking around for this little nature walk. I'll bet we do another one at some point in the future.
This is the second in a possibly endless series of posts about the fascinating details of nature in our figurative Texas Hill Country back yard. Part 1 is here.


I hope your weather has been as nice as ours over the past few days. Cool mornings and warm afternoons mean that we get to spend a lot of time outdoors, and there's been a lot of interesting flora and fauna to observe (and photograph). With your permission, here's what we've observed.

The turtles that inhabit the creek behind our house are a skittish lot, and tend to dive out of sight at the slightest provocation. So it was a rare pleasure to stand at the back fence and watch this one. This is about as mellow as you'll ever see a turtle get (I'm pretty sure it wasn't dead).

Photo - Turtle floating in creek
Find someone who loves you like this turtle loves floating in a creek.

The stream that runs behind our house is called Pecan Creek, and a couple hundred yards downstream from our place another, smaller creek joins it. I don't know if it has an official name but on Google Maps it's called Dry Branch. Anyway, it runs through a golf course fairway on its way to Pecan Creek, and a small dam creates a small pond on either side of a bridge. Debbie and I run and walk across this bridge on a regular basis and we've been monitoring the activities of a family of Egyptian geese that have taken up residence in these ponds.

When we first noticed them, there was a pair of adults, and two downy goslings sticking close to mom. The next time we passed by, several days later, we were saddened to see only one baby...and the third time, only the adults were out and about. We assumed the worst. But, last Friday we walked across the bridge and were delighted to see that one of the goslings had survived and was growing rapidly. I'm unsure of the goose family dynamic once the progeny mature. For all I know, they go away for a while and they returned to live in their parents' basement and play video games. But it's cool to see them hanging out now.

Photo - Egyptian geese - two adults and a juvenile
Dad keeps watch while mom and kid go grocery shopping.

Speaking of birds -- and downy hatchlings and nestlings in particular -- remember the hawks nesting in the tree next to our house? The wind finally died down enough for me to launch my little drone in an attempt to check on the nest.

Now, you need to understand a few things about this process. While I control most of the flight functions via a set of joysticks on a controller connected wirelessly to the drone, I monitor the video/photo stream via my iPhone. The small size of the phone screen plus the fact that I'm usually flying in bright sunlight means that I can't really make out the details of what the drone is videoing or photographing. So, my technique is to shoot everything everywhere and hope that I get something worth looking at. Sometimes, I get lucky.

Photo - Hawk nestlings
The female hawk is at the upper left, mostly obscured by the tree's foliage.

Photo - Hawk nestlings
Here's a closer look at the nestlings.

I'm no expert, but the baby hawks surely can't be more than a few days old.

Let's shift gears from the avian world to the domain of the reptiles. It's not such a great leap if you believe the scientists in Jurassic Park: birds evolved from dinosaurs, and lizards are nothing but tiny dinos.

I've often featured anoles on these pages, so there's nothing really new to report. I just liked these close-up photos. The first one you see is a male Carolina anole, and if you'll drag the yellow line to the left, you'll see a female of the same species (the zig-zag pattern on the back is the tell).

Photo - Male Carolina anole 'Photo - Female Carolina anole

The female lizard was on an acanthus leaf in our courtyard. I later looked out the window and noticed that she had something in her mouth.

Photo - Female anole
What the heck is she holding in her mouth? Wait...what? Eww...

Alert Gazette readers will recall that I recently wrote about the anole's molting process. What I didn't report on is the tendency of the lizards to eat their own shed skin, which is apparently nutritious, in a gross reptilian fashion. If you look closely at the preceding photo, you can see that she is molting the skin on her head (face?), and the piece she has in her mouth could be the skin that circled her eyes. I'm just guessing here, and she didn't actually end up eating whatever it is, but it makes an interesting, if somewhat unsettling, possibility.

In closing, and as long as we're in the reptile kingdom, here's a photo of a Texas spiny lizard that was sunning itself on our deck. The coloration on this one is a little unusual, as they normally have very distinct dark bands down their back.

Photo - Texas spiny lizard
Perhaps we're not that far removed from
Jurassic Park after all.

That's it for this this edition of Neighborhood Nature. Check back tomorrow as we focus on the insect world, with a couple of floral photos thrown in for variety.
I was on our deck before breakfast yesterday and noticed an anole on the railing. This is not an unusual occurrence; we're practically overrun with them. But there was something different about this one. I got closer and immediately recognized what was going on: the lizard was in the process of molting, and had pieces of shed skin clinging to its head.

All reptiles go through a similar process as they grow. Snakes shed their entire skins at one time. Turtles and alligators shed their plates and scales, respectively, one at a time. Lizards molt their skin a section or piece at a time.

They're a little lethargic when they're molting and I was able to get within a few inches of this one before it tired of my company and jumped off the deck into the liriope below. I thought no more about it (other than regretting that I didn't have a camera with me) and went inside for breakfast.

Later, about midway through breakfast, something on the deck caught my eye. I couldn't tell for sure, but it looked like a lizard was eating something. This time, I did have my phone handy.

Photo - two anoles
It was hard to make out exactly what was going on from a distance.

I got a little closer, and the situation was clarified. Two anoles -- one brown and one green -- were fighting, and one had gained a definite advantage.

Photo - two anoles
The green anole had the brown one gripped by the throat.

Green or Carolina anoles (Anolis carolinensis) and brown or Bahaman anoles (Anolis sagrei) are separate species. The former is native to the US; the latter is not, but has gained a fairly wide foothold in the States over the years. And, apparently, they don't get along well with each other. But, it's not really a racial thing...male anoles are quite territorial and they will aggressively defend their domain against every perceived interloper. In this case, El Verde apparently got the jump on El Café.

I got closer...

Photo - two anoles
The green one looked familiar.

Since anoles can change color, one might wonder if these are both of the same species. The greenies can turn a shade of brown, but the brown ones never turn green...only different shades of brown. I also suspect (it's just a guess, however) that during stressful times like this, their "natural" colors persist. Whether that's true or not, if you look closely at the back of the neck of the brown one, you'll see the dorsal flap which is an indication that this is indeed a different species from the green one.

From this vantage point, I could see that El Café was still breathing, albeit very slowly. El Verde acknowledged my presence by dragging his adversary a few inches, but he was loathe to release him.

Photo - two anoles
El Verde was molting...note the loose skin patches on his head.

The green anole was the same one I saw earlier on the deck railing. His territoriality trumped his lethargy as he assertively defended his borders (one wonders how they might be laid out).

Now, I have no great issues with the life-and-death realities of nature, but I kinda like the idea of having two competing species hanging around the premises. Since the brown one was still alive, I took matters into my own index finger and gently flicked the tail of El Verde. He relaxed his Jaws of Death, and to my surprise, both lizards sprang away, in opposite directions of course. El Café showed no apparent residual deleterious effects, living, I suppose, to fight another day.

I imagine them smack-talking to each other across the deck, perhaps in voices reminiscent of Inigo Montoya: until we meet again, mi amigo, enjoy your life, as it will be shorter than you wish.
We have a loquat tree in our back yard. The loquat is native to China but has a widespread range; in the USA, however, it's generally limited to southern states. We had never seen one before we moved to Horseshoe Bay, and even here they're not very common, but we've grown fond of it. It's an evergreen and its big leaves provide us with some privacy during the winter months when most other trees drop their leaves. When it flowers, it attracts bees and butterflies, and the hummingbirds like to sit on its branches to keep watch over the feeders.

Photo - the loquat tree in our back yard

If you're unfamiliar with loquats, here's a quick primer. They're in the same family (Rosaceae) as roses, photinia, and pyracantha, as well as fruit-bearing plants such as apples, pears, strawberries, plums, cherries, peaches, and apricots. Surprisingly (to me, anyway), they're not botanically related to the kumquat.

The loquat fruit is not large -- about the size of a golf ball -- and ripens in the spring to early summer. The taste varies from tangy to sweet depending on the variety and the ripeness; some describe it as a combination of peach, citrus, and mango.

Why am I waxing so eloquently about the tree? Simply this: we have a bumper crop of loquats this spring, I suppose because of the mild winter and abundant rain. We've never had enough to even catch our attention...much less harvest and eat. Well, I tasted one; Debbie has eaten a couple. I wasn't that impressed with the flavor, and we agreed that in one respect they're like crawfish: a lot of work goes into getting just a tiny taste.

Nevertheless, something enjoys them...and therein lies the mystery.

Debbie harvested a grocery sack full of them, either directly from the tree or off the ground. After we decided that they wouldn't become a staple of our quarantine diet, she tossed them over the back fence as potential food for birds and critters. One day she disposed of 20 or 30; they disappeared overnight.

I theorized that some of our omnivorous varmints -- possums, skunks, raccoons...possibly even armadillos, although they were at the bottom of my list of suspects -- were dining on the fruit. We were anxious to identify the gluttons, so we scattered some more fruit between the fence and the creek and I placed a game camera in hopes of solving the mystery. And that's exactly what happened around 3:00 a.m. this morning.

Slide the vertical yellow bar to the left in the following photo to reveal the identify of the loquat-gobbling visitor:

Photo - Loquats on ground 'Photo - Deer eating loquats

While armadillos were at the bottom of my list of suspects, deer didn't even make the list. But the photographic evidence is clear: at least one of them is hooked on loquats.

I also edited one of the videos from the gamecam into an animated gif (see below), and if you look closely, you can tell that it's a buck by the just-beginning-to-bud antlers.

The deer didn't consume all the loquats, and I'm not sure why. About 45 minutes after the deer appeared and then left, a possum entered the scene but didn't seem to express any interest in the fruit. Shortly after that, a strong storm rolled through, and that might have limited the appearance of additional diners. Regardless, we now know that whitetail deer are not only vegetarians, but also fruitatarians (that's a technical scientific term).

By the way, the seeds in loquats contain a cyanide compound, similar to that in apricot pits. I wonder if whatever is chowing down on them experiences any ill aftereffects as a result.

Animated gif - Game camera movie of a deer eating a loquat

Hawk Gawk / Drone Moan
April 26, 2020 2:05 PM | Posted in: ,

The pair of red-shouldered hawks in our neighborhood have built a nest in a huge oak tree in the lot just to the west of our house. I wasn't completely confident of this fact until yesterday, but the circumstantial evidence was pretty strong.

We could see a mass of twigs and small limbs waaaay up in the tree, and we guessed that it was a nest, but because of its placement and the other foliage, there's no clear line of sight to it. However, we often saw one or two hawks fly to and from the tree...but, again, no line of sight to confirm they were visiting the nest-like mass.

So, yesterday morning I charged up a couple of batteries for my drone and launched it from our driveway, thinking that perhaps I'd have better luck spying on the nest from above. It was rather breezy and I had some trouble maneuvering the drone, but I soon discovered that there was no clear path to the nest from that side of the tree, so I landed the drone, intending to try again today when it might be more calm. 

Even though I had no luck spotting the nest, both hawks flew out of the tree and around the drone a couple of times. I was curious to see if one of them might attack the little aircraft, but they didn't seem overly aggressive. (I was to later discover that there was a greater threat than protective hawks.)

Fortunately, the wind died down later in the afternoon, so I again launched the drone and flew it to the other side of the tree, opposite from our house. From there, I took it up to an altitude of about 50-60', pointed the camera downward and -- voila! -- an amazing scene appeared:

Photo - Nesting red-shouldered hawk (drone photo)

Here's better view:

Photo - Closeup of nesting red-shouldered hawk (drone photo)

The drone hovered about 6-10' above the nest and I recorded video for a couple of minutes. I was happy to see that the hawk never seemed to acknowledge its presence, much less appear agitated.

I mentioned above that some non-hawk-related drama occurred. I piloted the drone back to the driveway where I intended to land it. It was hovering calmly at about 6' when I tried to activate the auto-land control on my phone, but instead of settling gently into my outstretched hand, it shot straight up into the branches of another oak tree shading the drive and became hopelessly entangled, twenty-five feet above my head. Well, great. I felt like Linus, staring mournfully at his mangled kite in the grip of that predatory tree.

The drone's green and gray color scheme was a perfect camouflage, and it would have been difficult to even determine its location but for the glowing lights from the trapped-but-still-activated craft. 

Photo - Drone trapped in tree

By the way, normally there are two green lights and two red ones. Four glowing crimson lights indicate a malfunction. Gee...ya think?

My MacGyver instincts kicked in. One approach would be to cut down the century oak, but that was possibly a bit extreme. I needed something with a thirty foot reach to dislodge the drone.

Fortunately, another dominant instinct is hoarding, and I still have a decades-old windsurfing mast which is fifteen feet in length. I had attached a small plastic rake on the end and I was using the contraption to clean leaves off the roof and gutters. That extended the length to seventeen feet.

I got a stepladder out of the garage and the second highest rung added five feet to the reach. If you're doing the math, we're now at 22 feet. I needed only eight more feet and I cleared that distance with my own wingspan, holding the mast+rake assembly at arm's length.

With Debbie steadying the ladder, I was able to dislodge the drone, which came crashing down in a decidedly ungraceful fashion. It hit the pavers pretty hard, sending the battery flying in one direction while the drone bounced the other way. Not good. (In hindsight...how hard would it have been to spread a blanket or two under the tree to cushion the inevitable fall? I guess that's [one reason] why I was never cast in the role of the actual MacGyver.)

Upon closer inspection, I was relieved to see that the damage was actually fairly minimal. One of the rotor assemblies was a bit cockeyed (see photo below), but when I popped a battery back in and tested the drone, it lifted off and hovered in place quite steadily. Apparently the operating system is sophisticated enough to allow for variation in the rotor's position.

Photo - Drone damage

I was able to bend the rotor assembly back into place and I suspect there will be no issues with flight, although I won't know for sure until I can put the drone through its paces in the great outdoors. (Update: I did just that a couple of hours ago, and while the drone still flies well, it doesn't reliably respond to instructions. There's either some circuitry damage, or it no longer trusts my piloting expertise.)

I have no idea what caused the mishap. After discussing it with my pal Tommy, another drone pilot, we theorize that the automatic Return To Home (RTH) feature kicked in just as I tried to initiate the landing. The RTH is designed to bring the drone back to safety when the battery reaches a critically low condition, ensuring that it doesn't land abruptly (aka "crashing") in an untenable position...like, say, in a tree. The situation oozes with irony.

Back to the birds. I don't want to intrude on their personal space, but at the same time, I really want to monitor the nesting situation, especially if/when the eggs hatch. So, I plan to check on things every few days. If you're interested in the progress, I'll be posting updates on the Gazette as they occur. And I hope none of them involve any rescue or recovery attempts!
For the past few weeks, we've listened to the conversations (and monologues) of crows, originating from somewhere to the southwest of our house. They don't sound close, but their calls can carry long distances. And every now and then we could hear something crow-like, almost like the pleading of a young bird. But I'm far from being an expert in the ways of crows so I could very well be mistaken about that.

Anyway, as Debbie (previously known as MLB, but I now have her permission to reveal her identity) and I were heading out on a run yesterday morning, I glanced over at the electrical transmission towers that are just outside our neighborhood and spotted what looked to be a nest near the top of one of them. I told her that we should go investigate when we have a chance.

We did just that around in the early afternoon, donning our snake boots in preparation for a hike through the tall vegetation and rocky terrain surrounding the towers. We drove to a cul-de-sac about a hundred yards from the towers, parked the truck, and began making our way across the landscape. I brought my camera (of course) with an 80-250 zoom lens, and as usual, found a lot of interesting things to photograph. Let's explore, shall we?

The beginning of the hike was a pretty one, with an impressive array of spring wildflowers covering the ground.

Photo - Wildflowers in a field

We could see the tower in question just over the treeline, and it was obvious that there was a large nest near the top of the tower.

Photo - Transmission tower at a distance

We crossed the wildflower-covered open area and walked through a brushier part of the hill, and through an opening in the trees we caught a glimpse of an impressive vista, including a sliver of Lake LBJ about two miles away, as the crow flies (sorry).

Photo - View of Lake LBJ and surrounding countryside

The nest seems to cling precariously to the crossbeams of the tower. Notice the cluster of wires installed on top of the insulators to keep birds from perching there; I have no idea why that's important, but they obviously have no effect on nest building.

Photo - Crows nest on electrical tower

Photo - Close-up of crows nest on electrical tower

There are actually a pair of identical towers, side-by-side, and a crow was keeping watch on the other tower. 

Photo - Crow on electrical tower

A second crow had been flying back and forth, and eventually it landed and appeared to consult with the first one. If its plumage looks to be in disarray in the photo below, that's because it was. More puzzling behavior...was it shaking its feathers to communicate something to the other bird as they touched beaks?

Photo - Two crows on electrical tower

We watched the birds for a few minutes, then decided to do a little more exploration. Here's Debbie posing in front of a granite boulder she tried to convince me to take home.

Photo - Debbie in her snake boots

These purple flowers were quite plentiful, and we'd never seen them elsewhere in the neighborhood. At first, we (and by "we" I mean "she," because I know nothing about flowers) thought they were wild irises, but a little googling identified them as giant spiderworts.

Photo - Giant spiderworts in bloom

Cacti is plentiful, especially amongst the rocky outcroppings, and some of them are beginning to bloom.

Photo - Cactus flower
Photo - Cactus flowers

The most interesting find of the day was when Debbie pointed out the "foam" she discovered at the base of a few plants. I had never noticed it, but once we started looking closer, it was fairly common.

It was another mystery, but one quickly solved when she googled it and pronounced it to be the work of the spittlebug. These are tiny insects whose nymphs suck the sap from plants and then pump bubbles into the liquid to produce the foam (some oldtimers refer to it as "frog spit"), which surrounds them as protection from predators and also keeps them from drying out. The term "spittle" is misleading, however, considering the foam activation emanates from the other end, to be delicate about the matter.

Photo - Foam or spittle produced by spittlebugs
Photo - Foam or spittle produced by spittlebugs

Spittlebugs are not actually harmful to the plants they reside on, although in large enough quantities they can cause them to droop a bit. They are unusual enough to warrant a rather long investigatory article from The Gray Lady itself...which would have been the last place I'd have thought to look for an exposé on spittlebugs.

As an aside, this is not the first time we've discovered strange secretions from the plant life in our neighborhood. Alert Gazette readers will no doubt recall this post about ice flowers.

We didn't know enough about the phenomenon to investigate further on our hike, but when we returned home we went looking for the foam in the vacant lot next door. It wasn't nearly as plentiful, but we did find a couple of occurrences, and I violated the personal space of one of the inhabitants to see what it looked like. You can't tell a lot from the following photo, but it does confirm that the foam has a tenant.

Photo - Spittlebug on the end of a stick

Spittlebugs weren't the only attractive critters we came across after returning home. Here's a pretty little damselfly. (Confused about the difference between a damselfly and a dragonfly? This will help.)

Photo - Damselfly

And, finally, this caterpillar was hiding in the undergrowth. The spikes on its back might remind one of the wiry clusters on top of the electrical towers we visited earlier...and I suspect they serve the same purpose: to dissuade birds from further investigation.

Photo - Caterpillar

It was a fun and even educational way to spend a quarantined afternoon. Our only disappointment (well, mine, anyway) was that we didn't encounter any snakes (as far as we know) so our protective boots are still untested. Maybe next time.
Something in the half acre vacant lot next door to ours caught my eye a couple of days ago. lt turned out to be a really pretty and unusual mushroom...toadstool...ground-dwelling fungus. I'm not a mycologist and I have no skill whatsoever in identifying these organisms, but I do find them fascinating.

We've had a very mild and rainy spring, and the decaying leaves seem to provide an ideal breeding ground for the fungi. I took a few photos for your perusal, and converted the backgrounds to black and white to highlight the subjects.

Photo - Mushroom Photo - Mushroom Photo - Mushroom Photo - Mushroom Photo - Mushroom

The last one is my favorite, as I've never seen one like it before. If you can identify it, feel free to do so in the comments.

Sometimes your intended photographic subject takes second place to a surprise when you look closer at the photo...

Photo - Mushroom and tiny frog

These tiny frogs -- no bigger than my thumbnail -- have proliferated in our yard and the surrounding lots. I fully expect that they'll eventually attract certain types of predators (if they haven't already)...such as...

Photo - Shed snake skin

This remnant -- the result of a snake's ecdysis -- wasn't actually in the neighboring lot. We ran across it, literally, on a street just to the north of our neighborhood while out for a morning workout. There's no way of knowing the species of snake, but the most prevalent variety around here is a variation of the non-venomous rat snake.

Back to the neighborhood...an ongoing mystery is how a coil of barbed wire (or, as we say round here, "bob war") came to rest on the broken stub of an oak tree. The city of Horseshoe Bay was developed from ranch land, so I assume that this is a decades-old relic from that enterprise. In any case, I like seeing it there as a reminder of times when things weren't quite as civilized...and also of the importance of keeping one's tetanus vaccine current.

Photo - Coil of barbed wire on a tree

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't solicit your sympathy for our pollen plight. This time of year, I spend at least thirty minutes almost every day using the leaf blower to clean off our driveways, sidewalk, and patios. And, occasionally, when I don't go to that trouble, I still find it therapeutic to use a broom to clear a path (or landing strip) for our bicycle.

Photo - Pathway through the pollen from our garage to the street

I hope you're able to get out and do some urban/suburban exploration of your own during this time of enforced non-busyness. There are fascinating details in the world, both natural and manmade.

A Minor Diversion, Part 2
April 7, 2020 2:36 PM | Posted in: ,

A few years ago -- four, to be more precise -- when we lived in Midland, a dove built a ramshackle nest (to our eyes; for all I know, it was a masterpiece of dovish architecture) atop a shelf on a wrought iron baker's rack on our back porch.

At some point, Nature did its thing (cue Cole Porter) and the nest became the home of two pre-hatched dovelings, aka eggs, and a long-suffering mama dove.

Dove nest photographed at midnight without a flash; i.e. nothing to see hereBeing the voyeuristic naturalist wannabe that I am, I mounted a GoPro camera next to the nest and set it to take a photo every sixty seconds. I left it in place for a couple of days (and nights...which, as the picture at right attests, was less than, um, illuminating).

The result doesn't exactly make for riveting, Oscar-worthy cinema. (Although, neither do most Oscar-winning movies nowadays, IYKWIM, but that's another discussion for another day.) Even the mother bird looks bored most of the time, and a bit restless much of the time. I imagine it's hard to find a comfortable position atop two orbs relatively the size of basketballs, in human terms.

She left the nest very rarely and then only for a brief period. Occasionally, the dad (I'm guessing) makes an equally brief period, probably just to say "aren't you finished yet?" Despite the almost constant presence of the mom, I did manage to find a sequence of photos where the nest was vacated and the eggs were on full display. I pulled about 20 sequential photos out of the thousands that the GoPro generated, and made the following gif for your viewing pleasure. See if you can figure out what caused the mama dove to temporarily abandon the nest.

Animated GIF: Dove on nest with two eggs

Doves are notorious for building ridiculous nests in ridiculous locations. I've seen them on top of fences where there's no protection, and on the end of palm fronds where they spring up and down at the slightest breeze, and, obviously, on back porches swarming with human activity. It's a good thing doves are so prolific because I suspect only a very small percentage of eggs survive until they hatch.

But, bless their naive little hearts, they keep trying. Feel free to draw your own lesson from their example.
Update (4/2/2020): Add one more to the armadillo count below; another one became an involuntary guest early this morning. And, yes, succeeded in waking me up at 3:30 a.m. in the process.

People have been clamoring* for a trapping update from Casa Fire Ant, and I respond to nothing if not clamoring. Here's a snapshot to set the mood:

An engrossing pictogram showing numbers of trapped animals since the beginning of time, or 2017, whichever is later
Note that the T-rex count remains depressingly low

To be quite honest (vs. the not-quite honest we're best known for), we've stopped trying to trap anything but armadillos. We decided that we were basically serving as the raccoon equivalent of a Golden Corral and minor details such as illegality of transport and frequency of rabies in those raccoonish diners, plus the collateral issues of catching skunks, possums, and house cats led us to rethink our strategy. The raccoons continue to stroll past our domicile each night, but as far as we can tell, they're not doing any damage, so we'll peg our tally at just over half a hundred and focus on the truly annoying culprits, aka Dasypus novemcinctus, aka the state mammal of the United Nation of Texas, aka the nine-banded armadillo.

We've caught four of them over the past ten days, including two in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Pro tip: don't set your traps close to your bedroom windows unless you don't mind being awakened at 3:00 a.m. by armadillos banging around seeking to break their surly bonds. Seriously, it's a real thing.

Animation: Armadillo running from trap through a patch of wildflowersApart from the obvious benefit of ridding ourselves of lawn-destroying varmints, armadillo trapping this time of year provides excellent photo opportunities. The UARL (undisclosed armadillo releasing location) has some nice stands of bluebonnets interspersed with miscellaneous other wildflowers, and what could possibly make for a more iconic Texas photograph than the state mammal frolicking** amongst the state flower? So, accompanied by my adroit cameraperson, aka MLB, we carefully staged some wildlife release scenes.

If you watch carefully the gif above, you'll see that the armadillo gets a rather slow start out of the gate, but quickly picks up speed. He also shows off his hopping skills a couple of times. Armadillos are surprisingly quick and also surprisingly adept at jumping, which is one of their go-to defensive maneuvers when evading predators (and trappers).

They're also quite -- how can I put this delicately? -- stinky. The traps I use are wooden and "pre-scented," meaning that they've housed actual armadillos before being shipped to the buyer. The animals have terrible eyesight but an out-of-this-world sense of smell, and they willingly enter traps that smell like their brethren have gone before them. The odor in the traps will eventually dissipate in the rain and hot sun, but it only takes a couple of hours for an armadillo to "re-arm" the trap.

Photo - Armadillo in wildflowers
Photo - Armadillo in wildflowers

The photo immediately preceding shows one of the armadillos exiting the trap. I used to have to turn the trap vertically and shake it to make the critter depart (it's not that they like it in there, but they apparently don't like being told what to do), but I've learned that opening the end of the trap opposite from the way they're facing and simply touching their tails makes them immediately vacate the premises. I get it; I don't want anyone sneaking up behind me and touching my tail either.

Photo - Armadillo in the middle of the road

So, we bid adieu to our little scaly friend, both of us hoping never to meet again. And lest you worry, we make always make sure they're safely across the road (which is rarely traveled anyway) before leaving. At least he gets to smell the wildflowers; we get to smell him.

*I don't actually hear any clamoring, but silent clamoring is the best kind.

**It's more like running for your life, probably. I'm not at all sure that armadillos are prone to frolicking. But they definitely engage in shenanigans, if not downright hijinks.
Spring in this part of Texas is not really a season. If the year was a play, spring in Central Texas would be intermission...a pause between the dead brownness of winter, and the oppressive heat and mosquito swarms of summer. But that pause is, as they say, refreshing, because a lot happens during that brief interval.

[Disclaimer: The preceding is a broad generalization and one should actually never do that about weather in Texas. In fact, this year is a good example of that, as the second day of spring was 20 degrees colder than the last day of winter.]

Spring can be really beautiful around here, but it all depends on one thing: rain. We've been fortunate this year. I've measured almost eight inches of rain at our house in the first three months, pretty evenly spaced through each month. The result is a massive crop of wildflowers, plus generally happy plants and animals overall.

Everything combines to make for some interesting photographic subjects. Here's a pictorial of some springtime scenes around Casa Fire Ant.

A fine spring in the Texas Hill Country starts and ends with bluebonnets, our state flower. We scattered a some handfuls of seed around the vacant lot next door a couple of years ago. Last year, a disappointingly few came up, but this year the number increased exponentially. They were confined to plot of about a hundred square feet immediately adjacent to our lawn.

Knowing that the neighborhood's lawn maintenance crew would eventually be around to mow the lot, I used my weedeater to carefully create a very discernible border around the stand of bluebonnets. I even spent a half hour with hand clippers removing the weeds and grass around each flower so there was no chance of not observing them. Here's the result of that painstaking care:

Photo - small stand of bluebonnets
The halcyon days of our personal bluebonnet crop

It was a happy, placid scene. It brought a smile to our lips and a spring to our step and a boost to our spirits. Then the mowers arrived. You know what's coming, right?

Photo - small stand bereft of bluebonnets
The aftermath of the Great Bluebonnet Blitzkrieg

The heartless drivers of the mechanized monsters tore through our pastoral scene like Nazis through Poland a hot noisy knife through blue butter. (And to add injury to injury, they returned today in an apparent attempt to execute those few who managed to escape the initial onslaught.)

OK, it's not as though there aren't eleventy zillion other bluebonnets blanketing the landscape around here, but these were OUR BLUEBONNETS, DANGIT! *sigh* Life does go on, though.

So, let's not leave the subject of bluebonnets on such a depressing note. As the following photo demonstrates, we're all about diversity, even when it comes to the state flower:

Photo - white bluebonnets amongst the blue onesUm...whitebonnets...?

Because of genetic mutations, it's not uncommon to find white or pink variations of bluebonnets. For local readers of the Gazette, this small stand is at the corner of Bay West Blvd and Blister Gold (assuming those philistine mowers haven't gotten to them!). It's likely that these flowers will not be here next year, as their recessive genes will eventually be overrun by the dominant blues.

Another springtime phenomenon that Hill Country residents are accustomed to is pollen, and we're now entering the peak live oak pollen season where the stuff will fall like rain.

Photo - pollen-filled live oak tree
If you thought those are leaves on the live oak, you would be sadly mistaken.

The preceding photo is a good example of how the pollen manages to crowd out even the leaves on a live oak. That would be okay (well, okayer) if it stayed on the tree, although I guess that sorta defeats the purpose of pollen. Anyway, it doesn't, and you can see the results everywhere. Like, literally, EVERYWHERE.

Take our lovely Pecan Creek, after which our lovely little neighborhood is named. Here's how parts of it look now:

Photo - pollen covering the surface of the creek
Photo - pollen covering the surface of the creek

I've never seen quicksand except in the movies (Blazing Saddles comes to mind), but this is exactly what I imagine it looks like. However, I was surprised to see ducks swimming around in the middle of this goop, apparently unbothered, so it's either benign or ducks are as oblivious as they look.

The streets are not immune to the effects of the falling pollen. Here's what our bike tire looked like at the conclusion of our Sunday afternoon ride.

Photo - pollen covering the tread of our bicycle tire
When a bicycle doubles as a pollinator

The rain also brings out strange beauty, like this tree fungus attached to a long-dead stump that I spotted during a walk around the trail that circles our neighborhood.

Photo - golden tree fungus

Of course, spring doesn't bring only new flora; it's also the stimulus for the appearance of fauna, and around here, a lot of that fauna is of the slithery persuasion. The local Nextdoor message boards are filled with people posting photos of snakes around their abodes and asking for advice (most of which unfortunately falls into the general category of "kill 'em dead until they live no more, and then apply additional killing").

We've had a couple of visitors in our yard. In fact, a couple of days ago MLB was pulling weeds in our front yard when, as she puts it, one pulled back. Instead of grabbing a weed, she grabbed the tail of a small grass snake hidden among the ground cover. Neither were amused; fortunately, neither were harmed.

Photo - small snake in our courtyard
An eight foot long constrictor next to the world's largest acorn

While I do love myself some vernal flora and fauna, one of my favorite things about spring in these parts is the weather, which is often cool and misty and foggy. It makes for great running weather, and dramatic photos. I'll leave you with a few recent examples. Happy spring, y'all!

Photo - misty sunrise behind oak tree
Photo - sunrise behind misty creek
Photo - heavily photoshopped sunrise

R.I.P. Snake Tree
October 22, 2019 8:00 PM | Posted in: ,

Alert Gazette readers may recall this post, in which I chronicle one of the most dramatic nature-related encounters we've had the privilege to witness since moving to the Texas Hill Country. I think it's worth your time to check it, but if you have better things to do -- Game 1 of the World Series is underway, after all -- the article details the predation of a woodpeckers' nest by rat snakes in a tree across the street from our house. The action took place in the summer of 2018.

That tree was riddled with holes that were perfect for habitation by woodpeckers and squirrels, but which were probably also symptomatic of a less than healthy organism. Sure enough, we awoke on Monday morning to find* that the storm that moved quickly through our neighborhood during the early morning hours took a dramatic toll.

Photo - Tree snapped in half by high winds

The tree was standing -- and falling -- in a vacant lot, so nothing else was damaged (and there were no other trees in the neighborhood damaged by the storm). I found it interesting that the top half of the tree was leafed out and seemingly healthy, but the bottom half -- the foundation -- was obviously faulty and insufficient to maintain the integrity of the structure. (Gee, that almost sounds Biblical, doesn't it?)

My West Texas heritage causes me to mourn the loss of any tree, but this one has a sordid past and I doubt I'll miss it not having a future. I suspect the local woodpeckers will agree. And the snakes won't care, seeing as how they're snakes.

*MLB and I actually walked past the fallen tree and never noticed it until about an hour later. In our defense, we had just finished a run and were more focused on getting home before we collapsed than on the presence of an already collapsed tree.

Spunky Skunk vs Cowed Cougar
October 11, 2019 10:11 AM | Posted in: ,

In yesterday's post, I described my uneasy efforts to release a skunk from a trap. During that process, I kept reminding myself to not get complacent; just because I'd never been sprayed, I shouldn't think it couldn't happen. It didn't, and even though I eventually had to agitate the animal a bit to get it to leave, it never made any threatening motions.

In fact, in my experience -- admittedly limited and YMMV -- skunks are pretty chill. And when you think about it, there's good reason: their defense mechanism is probably one of the most effective on the planet, and humans aren't the only ones to recognize that fact. Case in point is the following video originating from Canada, in which a cougar (the mountain lion kind, not the older-woman-predator kind) discovers that his threat pales alongside a skunk's.



One suspects that the cougar has learned about the skunk's odoriferous emanations the hard way, although that begs the question of whether cougars are really so stupid as to think that another encounter would yield a different outcome. Or, maybe, it was just that hungry.

Anyway, the apparent lesson for us less-stinky humans is that when we need a boost in self-confidence, we simply need to picture ourselves as skunks. [insert political figure joke here]
A couple of weeks ago I spotted something in the adjacent vacant lot that looked out of place. It was a turtle -- a Texas river cooter (Pseudemys texana) to be precise -- in the process of creating a "nest" in which to deposit eggs. Being the insensitive-and-nosy jerk I am, I immediately set up a couple of cameras on tripods to record the process. (Alert Gazette readers will recall that this isn't my first turtle-egg-laying rodeo.)

While I didn't catch the mother-to-be at the very beginning of her quest, she was early in the process and I was able to video and photograph it through the very end, and it took a couple of hours (and a few swap-outs to recharge batteries). 

The nest building process is fascinating to me. The turtle had picked out a seemingly random location about a seventy-five yards from the creek where she resided. Using only her back legs, she dug a hole at least nine inches deep. The soil was completely dry when she started, but somehow during the process she emitted enough water to create a muddy environment before laying the eggs. When the laying process started, after each egg was deposited, she pushed it down into the hole with a hind leg. That action seemed to be rude and rough, but the leathery shells weren't damaged, nor were their contents (I assume).

I didn't hang around to observe the entire two hours, but I did check back in time to watch the actual egg-laying, and I counted at least eleven eggs. 

Photo - Turtle laying egg
Turtle egg being deposited in new nest

Once all eggs were deposited, she reversed the initial process. Again, using only her hind legs, the turtle pulled dirt and plant material back over the nest, and arranged it so that it was completely unobtrusive, even to a close visual inspection.
By the way, turtles get no respect when it comes to baby animal names. "Hatchling" is about as generic as it gets. I think they deserve better, so I propose something like "turtleini." Or "turtle tot." Or "turtlette."

OK, maybe we'll just stick with "hatchling."
Photo - Camouflaged turtle nest
Would you have known there were a dozen turtle eggs hidden beneath this patch of ground?

It was gratifying to think that we might be able to observe the hatchlings in three-to-four months.

Or not.

As it turns out, Mother Nature is often cruel and capricious. A mere day later, I walked past the nest and it resembled a miniature bomb crater. What was indiscernible to the human eye was apparently easily discovered by one of the several species of predators that live around the creek. I counted at least eight eggs in various states of consumption (and one still whole but obviously damaged). The only remaining question was: which varmint was to blame?

Photo - Ravaged turtle nest
The ravaged nest, circled in blue; egg remains are circled in yellow

I theorized that whatever had attacked the nest was likely to return at least one more time, so I pointed my game camera toward that general vicinity. Sure enough, the answer appeared when I downloaded the contents of the SD card onto my computer the next morning...and that answer was a bit shocking to me. Here's a screen capture from the short video captured by the camera:

Photo - Armadillo digging in turtle nest
Yes, it's an armadillo, digging back into the remains of the nest.

If an armadillo would have been at the bottom of your list of potential turtle egg eaters, join the club. But, according to the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management (a website for which the armadillo should be the centerfold, IMHO), the species is omnivorous to an extent I never considered. I'll save you a click and give you this excerpt from the ICWDM website:

The eating habits of armadillos

(Parenthetically, [Ed. -- This is redundant since it's already enclosed by parentheses.] this behavior received additional confirmation a few days ago when I found an armadillo in a raccoon trap baited with cat food.)

So, in the end, the river cooter's diligent efforts will likely come to naught, although it may be possible that a couple of the first eggs were deep enough to escape the marauding mammal. Such is life in the wild kingdom we call our neighborhood.

The following video is a condensed compilation of the footage I gathered over the duration of the events described above. If you have 8 1/2 minutes to burn and find moving pictures more interesting than my rambling text, feel free to check it out.


It's been an interesting week or so here at Casa de Fire Ant, thanks to the endless parade of wildlife traipsing past our abode, occasionally stopping to destroy our lawn on their way to whatever other endeavors attract them. 

Last week, we went out of town for a couple of days but I left my game camera activated to see what went on in our absence. That turned out to be a wise decision, from this amateur naturalist's perspective. I've stitched together something like a "best of" compilation from the several hundred photos and short videos recorded by the camera.



While the buzzards provided a bit of comic relief, the obvious star of the show is the bobcat that appears around the one minute mark of the video. We had recently heard reports of a bobcat in the neighborhood but this was the first time since we moved here two years ago that I've actually captured an image of one. Here are another couple of looks at the big cat:

Photo - Bobcat at night
Note the distinctive black bands on the front legs, a distinguishing mark of the species.

Photo - Bobcat at night
The bobcat's name derives from its stubby tail; the spots on the fur are another distinction.

The bobcat appeared on camera again, a couple of nights later, at almost the same early morning time. It walked so close to the camera that this is the only image that was captured.

Photo - Bobcat at night

A day or so later, I noticed a flurry of activity on the ground in the vacant lot on the west side of our house. It was a gathering of buzzards, and even from a distance I could see that they were intent on devouring something.

Photo - Four buzzards in a live oak tree
Four buzzards in a live oak tree

I walked over and the scavengers flew into nearby trees, unwilling to completely abandon their meal, which, to my dismay, was a whitetail fawn. The carcass was significantly damaged, but I couldn't discern whether that was due to the work of the buzzards or evidence of the fatal attack by...something.

Of course, my immediate thought was that the bobcat was responsible; its repeated appearance in conjunction with the dead fawn seemed like more than coincidence. Bobcats are known to take young deer, even though the latter are often larger than the cat.

However, the more I learned about both the bobcat and the other predators that prey on fawns, the less sure I became about the identity of the perpetrator. It seems that bobcats don't usually leave their prey after a kill. It's also entirely possible that a raptor such as a hawk or an eagle could kill a very young fawn, and there are red-shouldered hawks nesting in the trees (see photos below) near where I found the carcass. (I was also told that caracaras have been known to prey upon fawns -- yeah, I had to look them up, too. I've never seen one but that doesn't mean they're not around. The Audubon link shows that they're "uncommon" in this part of Texas; their common Texas habitat is in the far southern part of the state.)

Photo - Red-shouldered hawk sunning itself next to our driveway
Red-shouldered hawk sunning itself next to our driveway

Photo - Red-shouldered hawk nest
This hawk nest is about fifty feet above the ground, in a tree in the same vacant lot where the fawn carcass was found.

At the end of the day, the mystery of the deceased fawn is still just that: a mystery. I still lean toward the bobcat as the prime suspect, but we haven't even considered that a copperhead or rattlesnake dispatched the little guy. It's a tough world out there, sometimes, and the story doesn't always have a happy ending.
Alert Gazette readers will recall this account of suspected predation of a nearby bird nest by a rat snake. As devastating as it surely was, the parents refused to be discouraged, went right back to work, and hatched another brood of birdlets (black phoebes, to be precise). To date, the new batch of nestlings has escaped victimization by viper and the siblings have grown to become the avian equivalent of millennials. Of course, that comes with a whole new set of challenges.

If you thought the snakes were tough, mom says something like..."hold my beer."

In a bit of serendipity, MLB happened to perceive some commotion on the back porch in the vicinity of said nest, and had the presence of mind to video the goings-on with her phone. The result is an extremely interesting bit of nature that I've only read about -- and even then, I've always thought it was fictionalized. I've stitched her video footage together with some of mine (things got even more interesting following her initial recording), and the following short video is the result. Feel free to take a look, then let's unpack what happened, shall we?



So, at the risk of overly anthropomorphizing the situation, this appears to be a case of a parent getting fed up with the kids who moved back home after college, and who spend their [brief] waking hours playing video games in the basement and not doing their own laundry. If any of you find yourselves in a similar situation with your progeny, perhaps you'll take some comfort in knowing that the instincts that you're barely suppressing are actually a normal occurrence in the natural world. 

Hawk in back yard pecan treeBut, we still have questions. To wit:

  • At least two nestlings were thrown out of the nest, but one was left. How did the parent decided which ones needed to go, and which one could stay?

  • After evicting the little bird from the nest, did the parent really warn it about the presence of the hawk, as I've theorized in the video? How else can we explain the quiet stillness of the little guy while the hawk was in the tree, given its animation before and after the hawk's appearance?

  • And finally, how much therapy will the remaining nestling need after witnessing the plight of its siblings?
If you care to weigh in on these ornithological puzzles, please do so. But until I hear a better explanation, I'll continue to assume that parental tough love doesn't preclude life-preserving behavior.


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]

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.


Long Range Planning for Dessert
January 1, 2019 11:39 AM | Posted in:

Well, prospero año nuevo, y'all! If you're up and reading this before noon on the first day of 2019, you need to improve your social life.

Just kidding; your social life is exactly what it needs to be, especially if it includes reading the Gazette. Anyway, my cool cousin Pat, whose typewriter ribbon I'm not fit to change, has challenged me via Facebook to post something on New Year's Day. I think it's highly unfair of her to expect me to actually live up to my stated intention of blogging more regularly in 2019. After all, I said that literally days ago. So, Pat...this one's for you. Be careful what you wish for.



How about those crazy squirrels, huh?

We have a bunch of plants in pots on our back patio, and we're constantly sweeping up after the squirrels who tirelessly dig in them, either burying some treasure, or digging it up, or simply amusing themselves as they sit in the trees watching us sweep. Eh, that's life around a bunch of trees, which is a new experience for us former desert-dwellers.

So, we brought a few of those potted plants into the house when the weather turned cold, to protect the contents from freezing. We were surprised a couple of weeks later to see some unusual new occupants sprouting in one of the pots.

They grew quickly, apparently quite happy with the indoor climate, and within a few more days we could make a definitive identification: they are pecan trees. Exhibit A:

Two little pecan trees growing inside our house

It's pretty obvious that the aforementioned squirrels, doing their Johnny Appleseed impersonations, impregnated this pot with a couple of pecans from our back yard trees, and those pecans have hatched [Ed. You're not a botanist, are you?]

Our first impulse was to pull them up; the other occupant of the pot might not be happy sharing its little condo with strangers. But I got to thinking: what is a pecan tree after all but nature's way of making pecan pie?

Taking the long view of things, my plan is to transplant these pecan kidlings on the bank of the creek that runs behind our house, once the weather warms up, and then let things take their course. If my plan works -- and, really, it's as flawless as all my other ones -- I'll be enjoying a tasty pecan pie on New Year's Day 2025.

Well, assuming the squirrels don't get to the pie seeds first.

[I really need to brush up on my botany.]

A New Year's Day Surprise: Ice Flowers
January 1, 2018 9:18 PM | Posted in: ,

New Year's Day in the Texas Hill Country was a cold, dreary, and breezy one. Temperatures hovered in the 20s for most of the day, and the sun never made an appearance. It was a good day for staying inside, eating black-eyed peas, and watching football. 

Photo -
 Ice or Frost FlowerThat was basically my agenda for the day, until I happened to look out a bathroom window at a puzzling sight. It appeared that someone had let loose  scores of white plastic shopping bags which the wind had wrapped around the unmowed plants in the vacant lot next door and then shredded. But those plastic shreds weren't moving in the stiff breeze. Hmm.

I did the only thing that I know to do when confronted with an outdoor puzzle: I grabbed a camera and heading into the cold. I quickly realized that what I initially identified as shredded plastic was actually ice which the wind had apparently molded into some fantastical and delicate shapes.

To deepen the mystery, there was no ice or snow anywhere else (we did get a light dusting of snow during the night, but it was gone by midday).

Photo -
 Ice or Frost Flower

Later, I received a text from MLB, who was multitasking by soaking in the tub, watching the Austin TV news, and reading on her iPad (I know...I know). She informed me that the station was running a story on this exact phenomenon. The report said it can occur during the first hard freeze of the season, when the ground is still warm and water and sap in some plants is still flowing. When that fluid freezes, it bursts through the stem of the plant. As the fluid continues to flow into the frigid air, it freezes into these amazing shapes, which are known as "ice flowers" or "frost flowers." Wikipedia has a brief explanation; the In Defense of Flowers blog has a more detailed description of the phenomenon.

I'm not sure about the species of plant these ice flowers appeared on most often but it may be a variation of stinkweed, which is cited in the above-referenced blog post as being a common source of this phenomenon. 

Below are some of the photos I took. Click on the small images to see a full-sized uncropped version of the photo; you can use the arrows on the popups to navigate through the slideshow. 

Ice Flowers Note how the stems are split by the frozen plant juices It's odd how the ice is nowhere to be seen except on certain plant stalks Some of the ice was blown into hollow cylinders Ice Flowers Note how the ice flows along the stem Ice Flowers It's easy to see why these are referred to as Ice Flowers The wind fashions gossamer ribbons of ice This clearly shows how the ice spills out from the stem

This may be a fairly common sight in the Hill Country, but for me it was an unexpected reminder of the surprising beauty that nature offers even in the bleakest settings.

Update (1/2/18): A naturalist friend identified these plants as verbesina, sometimes called "frostweed" because of this very phenomenon. The ice formations are also known as crystallofolia.

Update #2 (1/4/18): This web page has a very thorough analysis of ice flowers, including historical references to the phenomenon.

Hiking Selah, Bamberger Ranch Preserve
December 18, 2017 1:42 PM | Posted in: ,

In 1969, a wealthy visionary named J. David Bamberger -- co-founder of Church's Chicken -- bought 3,000 acres of land in the Texas Hill Country a few miles south of Johnson City. Over the next few years, he increased the size of the ranch to its present 5,500 acres. In 2002, the Bamberger Ranch Preserve was created as a private operating foundation, and serves to maintain the ranch as a research and educational resource to illustrate the importance of preserving the original natural habitat of the Hill Country.

Selah locator map

Photo - SelahUsing proven grassland management practices, the ranch has reintroduced native plant species, while removing non-native invasive species. This process significantly reduced rainfall runoff, which in turn allowed the numerous long-dormant springs in the area to recharge and once again begin to flow. The result is a spectacularly biodiverse environment.

The ranch is open to the public for periodic self-guided group hikes, as well as for various educational and research programs. My wife and I were fortunate to be invited by our good friends to accompany them on one such hike last November.

Photo - SelahFive well-maintained trails totaling about four miles wind through the ranch, most of them named after famous conservationists and environmentalists such as Jane Goodall, Rachel Carson, and Ferdinand Lindheimer (aka the Father of Texas Botany). The trails involve some climbing, but nothing very steep, and some occasional loose rocks to traverse, but overall the hiking is easy.

The day was cool, clear, and slightly breezy when we set out. There were about thirty hikers, including one couple with two young children. We were shuttled through the ranch for a quick introduction, and the resident biologist pointed out various sites of special interest, including the chiroptorium...a manmade bat cave housing a migratory population of more than a million Mexican free-tailed bats -- the state flying mammal of Texas (I doubt there was a lot of competition for the title).

The chiroptorium was built in 1998, but researchers were puzzled by the relative lack of bats residing there. They finally determined that the problem was the three large plate glass windows installed in one wall to allow observation of the residents. The bats' sonar apparently had trouble distinguishing the glass from the outdoors and they kept colliding with the windows. Once the windows were covered, the bat population grew quickly. (Visit this page for more about the chiroptorium.)

We decided to hike almost the entirety of the trail system, since we weren't sure when we might be able to return. The fall foliage was striking in places, and we met up with the biologist on the trail and peppered him with a mess of questions about what we had seen along the way. I learned that I should never phrase a question to an expert thusly: "Now, isn't this tree a _____?" After three consecutive incorrect observations, I finally started just pointing and asking "What is that?"

We particularly enjoyed the sections of the trail that paralleled Miller Creek. The spring-fed creek flows into the small Madrone Lake, and eventually meets up with the Pedernales River. The creek wasn't flowing particularly swiftly due to the ongoing drought, but the water was clear and the occasional small waterfalls made a pleasant soundtrack for the scenery.

Photo - SelahWe were a bit disappointed that we didn't see much animal life during the four hour hike. It was too cool for snakes, and perhaps we were too noisy or unobservant to see the any of the 28 species of mammals that have been sighted on the ranch. We did see a wild turkey. Well, to be precise, we saw the remains of a wild turkey at the edge of a pond. We notified the biologist (in keeping with my campaign of disinformation, I told him it was a hawk), and he later informed us that a predator of some kind had gutted it and left the carcass where we spotted it.

I highly recommend a visit to Selah if you're in the vicinity during a scheduled hike. It's a testament to the ability of man to be a positive influence on the environment, and I'm thankful someone had the vision and the resources to provide such a gift to the rest of us.

I assembled a short video of footage and photos from our hike. I've also embedded a more professional video (also found on the Bamberger website, linked at the beginning of this post) that explains in more detail how the project affected the groundwater in the area. It's a fascinating account.




Nature...as I see it
October 8, 2017 8:58 PM | Posted in: ,

One of my goals in retirement is to spend more time with my camera, doing some creative things with it and Photoshop. I've managed to check off a few projects on a rather lengthy list, so yesterday I grabbed my macro lens and ring flash and went hunting. Here are some of the subjects that caught my eye.

There's a particularly gnarled oak tree in the lot adjacent to ours. I see the face of an owl. What do you see?

Photo of a tree trunk

Abundant rainfall and high humidity create blankets of moss on tree limbs.

Photo of a moss-covered tree limb

I don't know what species of grass this is, but the seedheads are unique.

Photo of grass seed heads

I was so focused on the wasp that I never noticed the mayfly (that's what I'm calling it in the absence of any actual knowledge) until I placed the image here.

Photo of insect on flowers

The turtle is the anchor for this photo, but there's lots more going on if you look closely enough.

Photo of a turtle in the water

Toadstools and mushrooms are abundant lately.

Photo of a mushroom

Photo of a mushroom

Photo of a mushroom

This grasshopper appears to be praying over its dinner salad.

Photo of a grasshopper on flowers

Granite boulders of all sizes litter the banks of Pecan Creek.

Photo of granite rocks

Yes, it's a moth.

Photo of a moth

Someone has requested photos of deer. I aim to please.

Photo of a whitetail buck

Photo of whitetail deer

Here are some logs for your viewing pleasure.

Photo of logs



I'm sure you noticed that a few of the preceding photos showed a bit of Photoshop manipulation. I sometimes do that in an attempt to bring a different perspective to a familiar scene or subject; mostly it's simply to enhance the image (I have some really good lenses, but a really mediocre camera).

But sometimes, it's just for fun.


By day and from a distance, it's a rather unassuming live oak trunk...

Photo of a tree trunk

But when the sun goes down, it's a whole other story...

Photo of a tree trunk with a city skyline inside

I love the look of these tree fungi. This one is growing horizontally almost six inches on the trunk of a live oak next to our house. The color gradiation is simply amazing (and, no, that's NOT Photoshop at work).

Photo of fungus growing on a tree trunk

But as I contemplate this photo, it reminds me of something else...

Donald Duck with a tree fungus bill

I started to boast that from now to eternity, whenever someone googles "Donald Duck fungus," this is the only page they'll get. But when I decided to double-check my boast, I found that I'm not even the first to use the term, much less the only one. Sheesh.
[Part 1] [Part 2]



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


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

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

Photo - Big honkin' rattlesnake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Photo - animal skeleton

Is this the skeleton of a harmless deer...or is it more likely the remains of a prehistoric dinoserpent whose descendants still inhabit these hills? You'll have to decide for yourself; I'm still on spider watch.
MLB and I spent last week at Horseshoe Bay, and it turned into quite a busy time. (Important Note: The following is the equivalent of showing blurry vacation slides from that trip with your parents to Knott's Berry Farm to captive friends who reciprocate by never coming back to your house, even when tempted by a Pecan Log from Stuckey's. If it will help, try to imagine me narrating this in Samuel L. Jackson's voice.)

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

Saturday

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

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

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

The Here & Now
The Here & Now

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

Emily and Gavin
Irish dancers Emily and Gavin

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

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

Celjun
Ireland + Cajun Country = Celjun

Sunday

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

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

Fall colors
Beautiful fall color

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

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

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

Owl in tree
The Watched watches the Watcher

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

Monday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horseshoe Creek
Horseshoe Creek - a view from the new trail

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

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

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

Christmas lights on the Johnson City courthouse
The lighted courthouse

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

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

Lights on the PEC trees
Our electric bill payments at work

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Thursday (at last)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not So Fast...

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

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

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




"8 From the Gate" is a rodeo reference. If you can stay on a bull for eight seconds after the gate opens to release your mount, then you've achieved a qualified ride. Good luck with all that, and let me know how it goes. [Return to the riveting account]

Removing Palm Trees for Dummies
February 22, 2016 7:15 PM | Posted in:

I spent a couple of hours last weekend removing a dead palm tree from our front yard. Well, I should qualify that: I achieved partial removal, but I still consider that a victory.

When we landscaped our new house eight years ago, we asked the contractor to plant a specific type of palm. In his great arrogance wisdom, he planted a different species (the identity of which we can't remember) without telling us. We actually had no complaint for six years, as the tree seemed to flourish. 

Photo - healthy palm
Our tree in a happier time

But the overly harsh winter two years ago was its undoing. We had hope, without any accompanying optimism, that it would somehow recover, but we finally accepted the reality that not only was it no longer alive, it had no zombie prospects.

Photo - sad palm
Can't quite put my finger on it, but something seems amiss

The remaining tree trunk wasn't massive, but it also wasn't something I could make short work of with a sharpshooter shovel and a chainsaw. Have you ever tried to disassemble a palm tree? It consists of a seemingly infinite number of layers, each of which is progressively weirder in composition. The outer layer (of this species) consists of the "bark" which is basically bullet-proof and lined with hooked teeth that are the envy of Great White sharks. Beneath this bark are thin layers of fibrous material so dense and tear-resistant that early Polynesian cultures used them to fashion unassailable chastity belts for their virgin daughters. OK, I made that up, except for the unassailable part. There's no way a saw can effectively cut through those fiber layers without becoming a tangled mess.

Given these anatomical challenges, I devised a cautious plan that I hoped would allow me to deconstruct the tree bit by bit. I first cut the roots using the aforementioned sharpshooter. I had no idea how deep the root system extended (I still don't, but we'll get to that later), but a key part of my plan was the ability to tip the trunk onto the ground and work on it there.
This step proved to be easier than expected. After digging around the base of the tree, cutting through the less-than-extensive lateral roots, I wanted to push or pull the trunk over. I thought about wrapping a chain around it and using the truck to tip it, but after a few tentative shoves by hand, the trunk actually snapped off at ground level, having apparently rotted over the past two years of dormancy (aka, death).

Photo - palm tree trunk lying prone
Oh, snap!

With the trunk lying prone, I proceeded with my Plan of Dismantlement. Pro tip: It's much easier to take a palm apart from the base up, rather than from the top down. As long as I respected the natural order of the layers - and wore thick leather gloves - I was able to easily strip off the deadly "bark" (I'm sporting just a single Band-Aid as evidence of the wisdom of my approach).

Photo - pile of dried palm fronds
The term "fronds" is much too...sissified...for these vicious objects

I was then left with a bare trunk to dispose of, one that I estimate weighed 150 pounds or so...more than I could gracefully load into a wheelbarrow or truck bed. So, how to break it into manageable pieces, given its resistance to sawing? I could envision only one solution, and it involved brute force.

Photo - palm tree trunk stripped of its fronds
Bare naked palm

I dug a pickaxe out of the tool chest and set about channeling my inner John Henry. Yeah, I know; he swung a sledgehammer, but work with me here.

I didn't know what to expect, and the first swing of the pick wasn't very satisfying as the tool just sunk into the trunk without causing any discernible useful destruction. But after a few more powerful (in my mind, anyway) swings, I sensed some progress. Then, just like that, the trunk began to disintegrate into twenty pound chunks. Again, I suspect that was due to the rot that had set in. It took little time and effort to break the remaining trunk into those manageable pieces.

All I'm left with now is the root ball, still securely sunk in the dirt. I plan to use a shovel to cut under it, but that work is somewhat complicated by not knowing exactly where the sprinkler lines run. The last thing I want to do is cut a pipe. Well, the absolute last thing I want to do is cut my toes off, but I'm pretty sure I can avoid that. I also fear that the muddy root ball may weigh as much or more than the trunk itself, so getting it out of the hole and fragmented for disposal will be another challenge. I suspect there's more pick swinging in my future.

Photo - base of palm tree
The final challenge

Stay tuned for the next exciting bevy of botanical bashing!

Disappearing Snow Time Lapse
January 7, 2016 3:12 PM | Posted in: ,

As promised, I've completed the time lapse movie showing scenes from our back yard in the days following the massive (for us) post-Christmas snowfall, aka Winter Storm Goliath.

It took me a lot longer than I expected, not because of any special technical complexity, but mainly due to my use of Apple's iMovie, a consumer-grade video processing software ill-designed to handle more than 4,000 photos (or 18.3 gigabytes). In fact, the process was excruciatingly frustrating; I won't bore you with the details, but the footnote to this post explains the issues in case anyone else has problems with still photos in iMovie. 

The final product consists of the daytime photos, taken at a rate of one every minute, for almost five days. If you're doing the math in your head, you've correctly figured out that is more than 4,000 photos; I deleted the nighttime pictures because...dark. If you look carefully you will see a couple of moonrises (with a chasing Venus). The photos were imported into iPhoto and the duration was set to .1 second per photo, the smallest duration the program supports. That made the video too long at more than nine minutes, so I exported it as a movie, then reimported it, speeded it up by 300%, and re-exported the resulting video at about three minutes in length. So, even if you have a very short attention span, perhaps it won't be too boring.

And speaking of boring, you're probably wondering why I would photograph snow for five days. That's a fair question and the short answer is that I didn't anticipate that this snow would last longer than any in memory. I really thought the snow would be gone in a day, or two at most, because that's what always happens in West Texas. But we had uncharacteristically cold weather (plus a light additional snowfall a day or two later) that preserved the snow. In fact, seven days later we still had vestiges of the snow on the ground.

Anyway...

The music is Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 8 "Unfinished" by the Budapest Philharmonic. I ripped it from vinyl, which may explain why it escaped Vimeo's copyright police. Don't tell anyone.

Viewing tip: You can watch the video by clicking below, but if you can spare the bandwidth, click the word "vimeo" to jump to the Vimeo website, and then watch it in full-screen mode. The GoPro's HD video capability really is impressive for such a small camera.



By the way, even though I cut out most of the nighttime photos, I did scroll through them in case there was anything out of the ordinary. Sure enough, I did find one puzzling photo...I'd love to hear an explanation of what made the lights in the sky that showed up for one frame at 8:06 p.m. on January 2nd. I can't identify it...it's in the sky...that makes it an...well...you know.

Photo - Night time UFO

Footnote: Coming soon(er or later)
A week ago today, Midland experienced its third heaviest daily snowfall in recorded history. Officially, we received more than seven inches of snow, making for some very pretty scenery.

I had a brainstorm while gazing out at the winter wonderland our back yard had become. Given that I'm a long-time West Texas resident and thus exceedingly wise in the way things work, I knew that the snow would disappear quickly. This would be a perfect opportunity to try my hand at creating one of those time-lapse videos that I find so intriguing. 

I had tried time-lapse a couple of years ago and was fairly pleased with the results. However, that effort was very short term and wasn't exactly dramatic. This time, I would document the disappearance of the snow from our back yard, and it would be a National Geographic-worthy bit of cinematic awesomeness.

On Monday morning, I mounted the GoPro camera on a tripod and ran an extension cord from the porch outlet to provide continuous power (I had been previously thwarted in my attempt at an epic time-lapse by short battery life). Here's what the setup looked like:

GoPro camera mounted on tripod in front of snow-covered yard

I connected my iPhone to the GoPro via the latter's built-in wifi, and set the camera to take one photo every 60 seconds. I figured it would take the rest of the day for the snow to melt, and I'd have a totally amazing sequence of photos showing the receding snow.

Boy, was I wrong.

Today - seven days later - there's still snow on the ground in the back yard. As it turned out, we continued to have sub-freezing temperatures for most of the week, along with freezing fog and even an additional light snow early on New Year's Day. The snow receded at a positively glacial pace (Ed.-I see what you did there. Stop it.) Most Midlanders I've talked to can't remember a time when a snowfall lasted this long; I certainly can't, but I've only been here three decades.

As a result, I'm now facing a somewhat daunting task of reducing about 8,000 12-megapixel photos into a time-lapse of reasonable length. I assure you that I will achieve that goal and post the results here, but to spare you short-term disappointment I've created something that I think will capture the spirit of the what I'm trying to accomplish, while leaving you hungry for more. In the following professional artist's rendering, think of the white as, you know, snow...and the black as...um...not-snow. (Warning: Tests have shown that staring at the following image too long may cause outrageous hallucinations, such as the Cowboys winning a football game, or Donald Trump's hair looking like something a sane person would wear on his head.)

Stylized animation of melting snow

Stay tuned for what I'm sure will be something unparalleled in cinematic history. Well, at least as far as my back yard is concerned.

Winter Storm Goliath: A West Texas Pictorial
December 28, 2015 10:13 AM | Posted in: ,

On Saturday night, December 26, the immense winter storm known as Goliath began to edge into the Permian Basin. MLB and I first encountered it ten miles east of Monahans at about 8:00 p.m. while driving back to Midland on I-20 from Fort Stockton, where we'd cut our Christmas visit with family short in an attempt to beat the weather. We didn't quite make it.

From the moment we left Fort Stockton we were treated to a lightning show in the north...the direction we were headed. We drove in and out of a slight drizzle, and while water was running in the streets in Monahans, it was no longer raining and we began to think we'd missed the the worst of the line of thunderstorms that had apparently preceded us. We were wrong.

As we passed the turnoff to the Monahans Sandhills State Park, traffic started to slow and we could see a line of flashing tail lights stretching to the horizon. Shortly thereafter, patches of ice began to appear on the highway. The ambient temperature was still 38º so the presence of frozen water was puzzling.

The further we drove, the worse the conditions, until we were traveling at speeds of 40 mph and less. Sleet was falling steadily; the good news was that the temperatures continued to remain above freezing. Still, we saw plenty of disabled cars on the shoulder, and one pickup on its side in the median. By the time we got to Penwell, we'd seen at least a dozen emergency vehicles with flashing lights heading west toward Monahans. Something serious had apparently happened behind us (we never learned what).

By the time we got to the Caprock, the sleet had turned to rain, and traffic began to move a little better. However, occasional patches of ice kept us from becoming complacent and we kept our speed between 50 and 55 (making the 18-wheelers who continued to pass us doing 70 seem all the more insane). Then, about five miles from Midland, the rain gave way again to sleet, the hardest we've ever encountered. I began to wonder at what point sleet was more properly described as hail. The sound of the sleet hitting our truck was almost deafening.

Despite the drama, we made it home safely, and we really didn't experience any close calls...just long periods of intense nervousness. It was a relief to pull into the garage around 9:00 p.m.

A layer of ice coated everything when we awoke on Sunday morning. Almost every church in town had already canceled its services, so we prepared to spend the day indoors, as the forecast called for increasingly bad weather. Sure enough, the snow began falling at mid-morning, and continued throughout the day. We eventually accumulated between six and seven inches - not a record, but among the top ten heaviest snowfalls in Midland. It was a good day to stay inside with the gas log burning and cheesy movies on TV.

However, I couldn't resist venturing out with my camera later in the afternoon to document the rare weather phenomenon.

Snowy pasture
Near white out conditions - looking toward Midland Country Club

Snowy stream
We have our own snow-fed "mountain stream."

Snow-covered yuccas
The yuccas were not amused.


Ducks in pond
The south pond is always beautiful when surrounded by snow.

Geese
Our resident geese like to stand on their pedestals, towering over the ducks.

Hawk in flight
While photographing the pond, a movement caught my eye and I was amazed to find this image on my camera.

Hawk in tree
It was a red-tailed hawk, seen resting here in a tree.

Christmas lights on house
We didn't have a White Christmas, but this was the next best thing.


Snow on a sunny morning
The sun came out the next morning, and the snow was beautiful.

Rabbit tracks in the snow
I suspect the bunnies didn't think the snow was so great.

Of course, heavy snowfall won't keep people from having fun outdoors, and this was the opportunity of a lifetime for some young kids who may have never seen this kind of weather before. I looked out the front door in time to see this heading down our street toward the end of the cul-de-sac, and grabbed my video camera for the return trip.

Blue Bell ice cream in grocery store
Our long national nightmare has ended

Our Labor Day weekend had a definite theme: Hills, Heat, and Humidity. Three consecutive days of 100°+ temperatures were bad enough, but when you factored in the humidity levels (~90% in the mornings; >70% in the evenings), even the slightest physical activity entailed copious sweating. Fortunately, we had plenty of changes of clothes.



We elected to leave the bike at home, so we spent some time each day walking or running through the neighborhood. That's where the hills came into play. I keep telling myself that running over those hills without having a near-death experience is just a matter of acclimation, but I'm either deluded or acclimation will require more than a once- or twice-a-month effort. (I'm pretty sure both factors are legit.) Nevertheless, we persevered, because we like to eat.

I didn't take any photos of the usually beautiful countryside because the drought has taken its toll on the landscape. Even the prickly pear pads are showing the effects of the lack of moisture. It's hard to conceive of how quickly the Hill Country transformed from a lush green, almost sub-tropical environment to a literal tinderbox of dead underbrush. In less than three months, the water level at Lake Travis has dropped more than three feet. The cloudy lining in this blue sky scenario is that rain is predicted for every day this week. Pray it happens.



One natural phenomenon in that area that isn't affected by the drought is the gathering of turkey vultures (or, as they're more affectionately known, buzzards) on the power line towers in the area. The birds begin gathering around dusk and spend the night perched on those towers. Walking near them is kind of eerie, in an Alfred Hitchcock sort of fashion. The birds are silent but never motionless, and you get the feeling that they're watching you carefully and if you stop moving for an instant, they'll assume you're road kill and swoop down for a bedtime snack.
 
Buzzards perched on towers
Buzzards perched on towers

These same towers are vacant the next morning, but the ground beneath them is littered with feathers, and reeks of...well, use your imagination.



We're always on the lookout for good opportunities to go dancing in the Hill Country, and this weekend was no exception. We continued our tour of the historic dance halls of Texas by visiting the Twin Sisters Hall located a few miles past Blanco on US Highway 281.

Twin Sisters claims it's the oldest hall in Texas, opening to the public in 1870. It's worth noting that Greune Hall in New Braunfels makes a similar claim - qualifying it as the "oldest continually operating dance hall" as it opened in 1878. Regardless, Twin Sisters is certainly historic, and well-preserved. It also isn't air conditioned (here comes that second "H"...and also the third one). The interior has a fair number of box fans scattered around the interior, but they didn't begin to succeed as an anti-sweating measure, especially considering the high energy music of the featured band on Saturday night.

Nevertheless, Twin Sisters could become one of our favorite dance destinations. The floor is spacious and in good shape, and there's plenty of seating around the perimeter. (They also have a rule against carrying drinks onto the dance floor...something Luckenbach should adopt.)

There are two downsides. First, they have public dances only on the first Saturday of each month. Second, beware when someone comes out and sprinkles an unknown substance around the floor. This is a completely unnecessary attempt to make the floor easier to dance on, but what it did for us is make it almost dangerously slick.
 
Twin Sisters Dance Hall
Twin Sisters Dance Hall - View of the stage
 
Twin Sisters Dance HallTwin Sisters Dance Hall - View of the main entrance

The band that evening was The Georges, with members hailing from from San Antonio and New Braunfels (they have a standing Wednesday evening gig at the aforementioned Greune Hall). They specialize in rockabilly music - or as they call it, Retro Rock. I'm not sure about the genre, but I can assure you that its primary feature is speed. Holy cow, did they ever play some fast songs.

The Georges
 
They did play a good variety of cover and original tunes, including songs by Dwight Yoakam, Waylon Jennings, Roy Orbison, and Elvis. (Conversely, there was a refreshing absence of "bro-country.") The lead singer, Jason George, has a powerful voice with an impressive range, and he's backed by some skilled instrumentalists. The only minor quibble we had with the performance was an occasional tendency to vary the tempo of the music during a song, which make dancing more challenging. In summary, while their musical style isn't one that we'd want for every dance, we'll certainly look for future opportunities to hear them.

Here's a [rather sedate] sample of their music.



In contrast to our experiences at the Mercer Street Dance Hall in Dripping Springs, the crowd at Twin Sisters was slightly older, although there were a few families present. But the dancers were also more skilled; we never feared for our lives because of the out-of-control "frat boy two-steppers" that are so prevalent nowadays. This could be because the location is a bit remote. 

In fact, if you're not glued to your turn-by-turn GPS, you can easily miss the entrance to the dance hall, which sits a few hundred yards off the highway and is hidden by trees. Ironically, it's easier to miss the entrance in the daylight, because at night they have the small sign lit from both sides by car headlights (yeah, no electricity for you!). But to make things easier for you:


Texas has 500 times more water underground than anything you see above the surface.  The question is, how much do we pump and how fast?
Late last year I reported on a project called Our Desired Future that focuses on issues surrounding groundwater conservation in Texas. I'm now happy to report that the new ODF website has launched, and one of its first video features is about the "rule of capture" in Texas, using Pecos County and Fort Stockton - my hometown - as examples of the complications that arise when people are allowed to legally pump all the water they can.

You can watch it on the ODF website, or you can view it right here:



Our Desired Future is an impressive and interesting resource for anyone interested in the potential impact of groundwater depletion in Texas. Most of our state is no longer in the grip of the years-long drought that emptied many of our lakes, but we're in no position to be complacent with respect to water usage. Education is key to combating complacency.

Regardless of where you come down on the issue of water ownership, the stories and statistics on the new website are worth spending time with.

Desert Willow: Destruction & Rehab
June 26, 2015 3:15 PM | Posted in: ,

Alert Gazette readers may recall my report on the Great Ice Storm of 2015, in which I chronicled the apparent destruction of the beautiful desert willow in our back yard. That event was heartbreaking, and it even made the cover (with accompanying article) [PDF] of the newsletter for the Texas chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture. That was a dubious recognition, to be sure, and at the time I thought it might be an obituary.

Six months later, though, the outlook is brighter, thanks to a tree's stubborn persistence (and a little bit of elbow grease on my part). I'm happy to report that we may have the equivalent of a phoenix rising from its ashes in the form of our back yard willow.

Let's trace the major stops in this journey of rebirth, shall we?

It's New Year's Eve 2014 in Midland, Texas, and we're starting to see a bit of winter in the form of a light coating of ice. We weren't particularly concerned at this point; the tree was actually kind of pretty.

Tree on 12/31/14

However, disaster struck two days later, when a stronger ice storm followed that initial event. At 9:45 a.m. the tree was starting to show the burden of the accumulating ice.

Tree on 1/2/15

Over the course of the next hour, the thickening layers of ice began to break major limbs on the tree, as you can see in this photo taken at 11:00 a.m.

Tree on 1/2/15

An hour later, the tree was stressed beyond its limits and the trunk split down to below ground level. This picture was taken at 12:30 p.m.

Tree on 1/2/15

I knew the broken limbs couldn't be salvaged, so I immediately took them off with a bow saw. Here's what the tree looked like by 1:00 p.m. that same day.

Tree on 1/2/15

At this point, all I could think about was how we were going to get rid of the carcass, and what might go in its place. It's worth noting that some have estimated that as many as 40% of the trees in Midland suffered damage from this ice storm, so we were not alone.

However, a couple of weeks later I began to wonder if there was some way to at least make the tree look better, whether we decided to keep it or not. I used a ratcheting tiedown to pull the tree trunk back together (sort of), drilled a hole through both halves, and bolted a threaded metal rod with big washers on each side to hold it in place. (When I grow up, I now want to be an orthopedic surgeon.) I had no illusions that this was a cure, but at least the sight of the tree didn't make us want to cry. Here's how it looked on January 16th.

Tree on 1/16/15

Fast forward a few months. Spring rolls around and in typical desert survival fashion, the tree seems to not realize it's been mortally wounded, as you can see from this photo from April 29th.

Tree on 4/29/15

Cute, huh? But, seriously, nothing that hints at something we can work with. However, I'm having trouble working up the energy to do much about it, other than remove some of the remaining limbs that were hanging over the fence into the alley.

May comes around, as it inevitably does, and we get rainfall bordering on record amounts, and the tree gets a growth spurt that would make any adolescent boy proud. By June 5th, the tree begins to vaguely resemble Wilson, the volleyball that kept Tom Hanks company in the movie Castaway.

Tree on 6/5/15

The tree is now putting on new growth so quickly that you can almost see it in real time. In just over two weeks, it looks like a shrub on steroids, as this picture from June 21st illustrates.

Tree on 6/21/15

At this point, we decide we should just roll with it and see how things play out. There are still some wayward limbs that don't fit in with the new aesthetic...

Tree on 6/25/15

...but the trusty (and only somewhat rusty) bow saw makes short work of them. The result - for now anyway - is the reborn tree shown below that we'll allow to develop the remainder of this year, and then do some additional shaping in the off-season. The moral of the story? Never give up on Mother Nature. Life is resilient, if given the chance.

Tree on 6/25/15 after final pruning

Note: I'm not a professional arborist, and I haven't consulted one, which might be a mistake. If you have any suggestions based on actual experience to help us mold this tree into a masterpiece, feel free to share them.
Prickly Pear bloom

The bluebonnets are thinning out in the Texas Hill Country, but wildflower season is far from over. The amazing fields of blue are giving way to even more vivid arrays of yellow, red, and white blooms, and not just from the typical flowering plants. Cacti are busy putting out their own displays of color.

And, of course, where the flowers go, bugs are bound to follow. And, sometimes, creatures more reptilian.

We spent last weekend at Horseshoe Bay and on Sunday afternoon Debbie and I took our cameras out for a walk. The first thing I did was drop my macro lens on the pavement. Fortunately, Canon makes a really rugged lens and even though it suffered a few scratches and dents, it continued to perform perfectly. 

It was quite breezy and those of you who do macro photography know what a challenge it is to get decent closeups when your subject is swaying continuously. But my technique of taking about 8,000 photos at a time paid off in a dozen or so semi-decent images.

Here is some of what we came back with. You know the drill; click on each picture to see a larger, uncropped version, complete with pithy caption.

Rainbow cactus bloom Unknown bug on unknown flower Bluebonnet photobombs cutter bee on firewheel
Hedgehog cactus bloom Bloom on prickly pear (do bugs have allergies?) Flower buds on prickly pear
Blue damselfly Blue damselfly (thinks he's hiding behind that stalk) Unknown bug on unknown flower (again; do I look like an entomologist?)
Unknown bug on knockout rose (in Midland) Bee on knockout rose (in Midland) Prickly pear bloom
Can you spot the lizard?

The following is primarily a photographic essay, with just enough text to give the pictures some context. Click each small photo to see a bigger version. If you see this icon in the upper right corner of the photo - - clicking it will expand the photo even more; click this icon - - to collapse it to its original size. Also, while you can click the arrows to move through all the photos, you'll miss my sparkling commentary by doing that, so exercise moderation in clicking.

Easter weekend 2015 in the Texas Hill Country was all about the wildflowers...well, other than The Real Reason for Easter (more about that later). We've been coming to the Hill Country for about thirty years, and neither of us can remember a spring where the bluebonnets were more plentiful and beautiful than this one. Following are just a handful of photos of some of bluebonnet-centric scenes we encountered in and around Horseshoe Bay.
 
Bluebonnets in the field adjacent to our townhouse complex Bluebonnets between Florentine & Golden Harvest (HSB West) Bluebonnets between Florentine & Golden Harvest (HSB West) Bluebonnets and rocks Bluebonnets with a cactus background Bluebonnets don't just grow in manicured spaces One of the deer in the group grazing among the bluebonnets Fault Line Drive - Horseshoe Bay West

However, it wasn't just about bluebonnets. Nature was doing a bang-up job with other varieties of flowers as well.

Flowers of unknown identity Yellow Flax (Linum berlandieri) A field of Fiveneedle Dogweed (Thymophylla pentachaeta) White Pricklepoppy (Argemone albiflora) Grass head - just because I liked it Dandelion among bluebonnets

Spring also marks the return of the more mobile inhabitants of our townhouse's tiny back yard, chief among them the green anoles that regularly patrol the wrought iron fence.

We're also once again hosting a family of barn swallows over our front door, and hummingbirds were investigating the flowers in the yard. I was even buzzed by a portly bumblebee...a welcome sight given the dire predictions of their dwindling population.

Green Anole displaying its dewlap Green Anole (yes, they can turn brown) Green Anole sunning itself

This weekend of the annual Horseshoe Bay balloon festival. Unfortunately for all involved, the weather was too windy and drizzly for the balloons to lift off. But we didn't realize that the festival was taking place directly across the highway in front of our place, so we had a birds-eye view (albeit a grounded one) of the balloons without leaving home. We did get to witness the balloon glow on Saturday night. (For you photographers, the night shots were made with a 100mm lens, hand-held, with an ISO setting of 1600, and no image stabilization. I think they turned out pretty well.)

Balloons at rest Lighting up the balloons Photo - Lighting up the balloons

Of course, the highlight of any Easter weekend is getting to celebrate and worship our risen Lord with fellow believers, and we did so in a rather unique setting: on the bank of Lake Marble Falls, with the congregation of First Baptist Church, Marble Falls.

The preacher said that there were 1400 people in attendance. I would never accuse him of exercising preacherly hyperbole, but even if there were only a thousand people present, it was still a great turnout on a cool and drizzly Sunday morning.

One interesting aspect of the service is that the church's newly-constructed campus on the top of the hill across the lake, shrouded in the mist. It's a stunningly beautiful campus and setting, and they'll be moving to it next month. We're looking forward to worship in the new facilities. I can only assume they'll be drier.

At the end of the service we all released butterflies. Most of them weren't too interested in flying in the drizzle, which made for an anticlimactic event.

Easter service on the bank of Lake Marble Falls The new campus of First Baptist Marble Falls across the lake (top middle of photo) The preacher delivered his message from a boat

One morning I walked out the front door and noticed that during the night, a giant had stopped by and coated our truck with the dregs from a bag of Cheetos. Well, that was my first thought, but then I realized it was actually pollen from the live oak trees. This is an occupational hazard of living in this area. If you want to get a better picture of what I'm talking about, the following photo shows the surface of the pond behind our complex; that pond scum is actually floating pollen.

Pollen floating on the pond

In closing, I kicked a fire ant bed, just to let them know who's in charge.

And it's not me.

This is what happens when you kick a fire ant mound

Ice Storm 2015: Aftermath
January 3, 2015 12:50 PM | Posted in: ,

The sun came out this morning, after four days of being missing in action, and the damage caused by yesterday's ice storm is all too obvious. We drove to the airport and back (that's another story) and saw a depressing number of broken tree limbs throughout the city. It's going to take weeks to clean up, and I suspect the tree service companies are salivating at the prospect of the extra work.

Back at home, I hauled out the trusty bow saw and went to work on our pitiful desert willow. I think I did a pretty good job of disguising the damage; if you don't look too closely, you can hardly tell it was damaged, right? Right?

Desert willow, post pruning
Just rub a little dirt on it; it'll be fine.

Fortunately, desert willow is soft wood when it's green and *sniff* alive, so it was easy to build a pile of limbs for easier disposal:

Desert willow limbs piled up

Despite the terrific damage this storm caused, the sun shining on the ice did bring out a certain beauty, which I will grudgingly acknowledge. I suppose it's a bit like having a rainbow after a flood. And since we can't do anything about it, we might as well try to take away a bit of the positive.

Ice covered live oak branches against a blue sky

Ice Storm 2015: From bad to worse
January 2, 2015 10:24 AM | Posted in: ,

I don't care what Luke Bryan thinks, there are times when rain isn't a good thing. Like, this morning.

We awoke to the sound of falling rain, which normally would be cause for rejoicing in West Texas. However, when temperature has been below freezing for more than 48 hours and the streets are already coated with ice, rainfall brings a feeling of dread. Fortunately, the view from our bedroom window seemed to dispel that notion. We even got a nice view of a hawk checking out the neighborhood from the top of a tree.

Photo of hawk perched in ice covered tree


It seems like only yesterday that I observed that the ice storm hadn't caused any damage. Oh, wait...it was yesterday.

So, at 9:44 a.m. this morning (according to the EXIF data from the camera), I took this photo of our back yard desert willow, as reassurance that the freezing rain was still not causing any lasting effects:

Photo of icy desert willow

Well.

Here's the photo I took an hour later, at 10:46 a.m. to be exact:

Photo of icy & damaged desert willow

Heartbreaking, huh. Those are some major broken limbs on what was a beautiful tree. Here's a closeup; avert your eyes if you can't handle hideousness.

Photo of icy & damaged desert willow

It gets worse; here's the view from the neighbors' driveway:

Photo of icy & damaged desert willow

Fortunately, I don't think they have a vehicle parked in that side of their garage, but this mess is still going to require some major cleanup.

Update (same day)

Once the rain let up and I was able to get closer, I found that the damage was much worse than I thought. The main trunk is split down to below ground level. I'm pretty sure the tree is a total loss. Even if it survives - and desert willows are nothing if not hardy - it won't be something pretty enough that we'd want to look at it every day.

Photo of icy desert willow
Photo of split desert willow trunk
Photo of split desert willow trunk
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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!

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.

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

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
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.

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.

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."

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

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

Photo of sunset and clouds

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

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.
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.


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

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

Creature Faceoff
September 17, 2005 9:36 AM | Posted in: ,

I suppose I have a thing for mantids. In my defense, they're the T-Rexes of the insect world, only greener. How can you not be fascinated by them? Plus, they're quite photogenic. 

Late yesterday afternoon, I spied a praying mantis resting on a plastic stool on the patio. As I turned to go back inside, I caught a glance of something else and realized photos must be taken. 

The really interesting thing is that two hours later, the live mantis was still staring down his much larger but no more stoic rival. At some point, I guess I need to remove the fake insect so the other one can get on with his life. 

Unless...and this is a vaguely disturbing thought...there's some more basic, um, attraction at work.