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¡Feliz jueves, amigos! Today is National IPA Day, National Work Like A Dog Day, and National Underwear Day, which means you have an excuse to drink a beer for breakfast and then go chase a frisbee in your underwear. [What a frisbee is doing in your underwear, I don't really want to know.] 

It's also National Oyster Day, so...well...I got nothing for that.

It occurs to me that I've never addressed the [lack of] reasoning behind the Random Thursday posts, and I'm certain that you've noticed that oversight but have had the grace not to mention it.

I first began the series in 2006, smack dab in the middle of the Golden Years of Blogging. My inspiration was the inestimable Blackie Sherrod, one of the greatest sportswriters ever to bang out a deadline-beating column on a vintage Corona whilst swigging a Schlitz and chewing a White Owl stogie. [OK, I made all that stuff up except the "greatest" part.] He worked for a number of Texas Metroplex newspapers over his career, and his Sunday column featured a section entitled "Scattershooting" in which he weighed in on -- you guessed it -- a series of random topics. 

When I first purloined borrowed the idea, I actually went so far as to use Sherrod's trademark intro: "Scattershooting while wondering..." After a while, I decided I wasn't doing his legacy any favors so I stopped using the phrase.
Oh, btw, don't go looking for those initial posts from 2006; they never made it into the redesigned version of the Gazette that you have before you today, following a temporary hiatus in which I questioned the very meaning of life and/or blogging. But, trust me...they were real and they were spectacular.
Sherrod died in 2016 (here's a good obit column), but his papers have a permanent archive in the DeGolyer Library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. You can still order a collection of his columns via Amazon in a book entitled, appropriately enough, Scattershooting.

Anyway, these Random Thursday columns are sort of a tribute to Blackie Sherrod, and in fact they closely resemble his offerings in all but a couple of ways: quality and brevity.

I think I may have noted this before, but during the summer months we have to check under the cushions of our deck chairs before sitting on them, lest we squish the little tree frogs who have claimed those spots for their daytime naps.

They're understandably annoyed on those occasions where we exercise our rights of eminent domain and rudely urge them to seek other quarters. Sometimes they flee the area completely, but occasionally they just reposition themselves and plot revenge.

I uploaded the following photo to Facebook a couple of days ago because I found it amusing. A tiny frog -- not much bigger than my thumbnail -- took umbrage at my intrusion, and while it moved out of the way, I caught it peeking up at me, no doubt memorizing my face for future mayhem.

Photo - tree frog hiding under a lounge chair

One of the local newspapers sponsors a "first bluebonnet of the year" photo contest, but as far as I know, no one has a "last bluebonnet of the year" competition. If they did, Debbie and I might win, as we spotted this one on July 27th, weeks after we thought the last of these wildflowers had gone to that Big Nursery In The Sky. This one was growing next to the cart path by the Ram Rock golf course #11 fairway. It lasted a couple of more days before it, too, crossed the Rainbow Bridge, or whatever the equivalent is for plants.

Seriously, though, it's just really unusual to spot a bluebonnet in these parts this late in the season.

Photo - Bluebonnet

We're fortunate to live in a very scenic part of Texas, and in a beautiful neighborhood called Pecan Creek, so-named not only because of the eponymous creek that runs through it, but also because of the huge heritage pecan trees that line much of the main street.

If you'd like to see some of what I'm talking about, I sent my new drone up about a hundred feet or so and took a photo from our backyard. The water in the distance -- about two miles as the crow flies -- is Lake LBJ. Our neighborhood is in the lower middle of the photo. If you know what you're looking at, you can spot four eighteen hole golf courses in this picture.

Of course, it's not always this green in August, but we've been blessed with abundant rainfall this summer. Believe me when I say we're not taking it for granted.

Click on the photo to see a much larger image (opens in a new tab or window).

Aerial photo of a portion of Horseshoe Bay, Texas

Last, but by no means least, if you're a dog or cat owner in Texas, or any other location where snakes are present, you should have a plan in place for dealing with the remote possibility of a venomous bite. Here's an excellent resource for that plan (PDF). Your go-to veterinarian should know the best practices for diagnosing and treating snake bites, but there's a lot to be said for being able to reality-test what they tell you to do.

If you're a Facebook user, I also highly recommend joining the National Veterinary Snakebite Support group, as you can quickly tap into the collective wisdom of veterinarians who are skilled in the treatment of pets that have been bitten...or even just are suspected of having been bitten (it's not always an obvious thing).
Today is National Eat Your Vegetables Day. But God loves us and wants us to be happy, so it's also National Cherry Tart Day and National Apple Strudel Day, and that's a clear sign of what's really important in life. The only way things could be better would be if it was also National Eat Your Weight In Tacos Day.

Here at the Gazette, it's a day to discuss crafty mammals, absent aves, and big honking' fungi. Let's get started, shall we? The strudel and tarts won't wait forever.

We should get the bad news out of the way first: the hawk nestling (remember this link because you'll need it again later) is no more.

A week or so ago we were hit by a pretty violent windstorm. I never learned the maximum straight line windspeed, but many trees suffered significant damage and more than a few were uprooted. A couple of days later, I flew the drone over the hawk's nest to check on the youngster, and this is all there was:

Photo - Empty hawk's nest

I searched all around the tree and found no sign of the nestling. I suspect that it blew out of the nest during the storm and soon after fell victim to a predator. It's a tough old world out there.

One of the adult hawks -- we've always assumed it had some sort of parental role, but there's no basis for that assumption other than frequent proximity -- continues to perch on a nearby tower. However, we no longer hear the distinctive cries of these beautiful raptors, so they may have moved to another location, now that there's no progeny to care for.

Photo - Red shouldered hawk perched on electrical transmission tower

Alert Gazette readers will remember that one of our new bird feeders was more successful in attracting raccoons than birds. However, we refused to be outsmarted by small furry masked varmints so we escalated the arms race.

I raised the height on the feeder, thinking that the pole was too small for them to climb. Unsurprisingly (in hindsight, at least), I was wrong about that, and they easily emptied the feeder the next night.

We then decided that the problem rested in the poor infrastructure so we ordered one of those foolproof squirrel guards (guaranteed to also stymie mammals of the racconian persuasion). I braved swarms of mosquitos and stifling afternoon heat and humidity yesterday afternoon to affix said guard to the pole holding the feeder. Last evening, I set up the trail camera to capture what I was sure would be some comedic-but-fruitless efforts to defeat my steel defense.


Here's what defeat looks like:

Trail camera photo showing raccoon atop squirrel guard, eating from the bird feeder

I've apparently succeeded in turning what was supposed to be a feeder guard into a feeding station. I fully expected to see a 5-star review on Yelp applauding my efforts to make dinner a more pleasurable experience for raccoons.

I have several possible solutions in mind, only one of which involves a long electrical cord. Stay tuned; the battle may be lost, but the war continues.

We received almost 5 1/2" of rain through the first four days of June (and 105" of humidity since then). The damp and cool(ish) weather generated a bumper crop of mushrooms and other fungi, many species of which I heretofore had not encountered.

We didn't generate a lot of mushrooms in West Texas, so I'm sort of fascinated by their variety. Here are a couple of specimens that stood out.

Photo - big mushroom
Photo - big fungus
Photo - tree fungus

I especially like that last one, which was growing on a broken limb in our yard after the aforementioned storm. It obviously had an effective moisturizing regimen.

That's all for now. Have a great weekend, and remember that 2:1 ratio of dessert to vegetables. Life is good!

Animated GIF of raccoon atop the squirrel guard, eating from the bird feeder

Loquat to No-quat
April 7, 2021 8:23 PM | Posted in: ,

Debbie and I have spent the past few weeks repairing the landscape around our house following the devastation of the Great Texas Freeze-Out of 2021. We make a great team; she tells me what to do, and I do it.

So far, we've taken out the following dead, or mostly dead, plants:

  • 4 pittosporum
  • 4 ligustrum
  • 4 palm trees (3 sagos & one unknown -- to us -- species)
  • 2 or 3 nandina (which weren't dead, but this was a good excuse to upgrade the landscape)
  • loquat tree -- more about this later
  • multiple rosemary bushes
  • 1 aloe vera
We're still waiting to see whether the potted bougainvillea survived in our cheapo greenhouse after the little ceramic heater shut off unbeknownst to us just when we needed it the most.

We also pruned back to the ground more than 20 big liriopes (aka monkey grass)...a process that was mind-numbing and back-breaking. There's never a machete around when you need one.

Mashup photo of Miracle Max from The Princess Bride 'operating' on a 'mostly dead' aralia plant
I spent way too much time making this image,
so please pretend to be impressed.
Speaking of plants that were mostly dead, the four aralias -- which were 5-6 feet tall -- in our front courtyard appeared to be goners, but are already flourishing from the ground, and looking quite content.

We replaced the pittosporum and ligustrum with 7 Lucky Leaf hollies pruned into a "pyramid" shape. The spots where the nandina previously resided are now occupied by Japanese boxwood, plus a quite fetching Crimson Queen Japanese maple tree. We haven't decided what -- if anything -- will go where the palm trees used to be. All of the replacement plants are hardy down to 0º; I hope we never find out if that's accurate.

Now, about that loquat tree...

Of all the plants we lost to the freeze, the loquat was the most distressing. We think the tree was planted by the original owners of our house when it was built twenty years ago. It was around fifteen feet tall, and its wingspan was about the same. Its blooms brought butterflies in the summer, and the fruit was coveted by deer. The thick foliage attracted all manner of birds and lizards, and the squirrels used it as a jumping off point to access the big pecan tree that grows out of our deck. It had survived all kinds of weather, but was no match for the record-breaking cold in February. For what it's worth, we haven't seen a single loquat around the city that survived.

Here's a rather large gif depicting the decline and death of our tree.

Animated gif showing stages of decline and death of our loquat tree

It may have taken two decades to grow the tree, but it took us only about four hours to reduce it to its component parts, including some logs that I hope will prove to be good firewood by the time the next polar vortex rolls around.

Of course, once the tree is cut down and the leaves and branches hauled off, there's still the problem of the stump. I thought about hiring someone to dig it up and take it away, but I was curious about what kind of root system it had. My guess that it didn't have a tap root, but instead had a network of lateral roots which didn't extend very far into the ground. If that was the case, it should be a relatively easy task to cut a circle around the stump and pry up the root ball.

I was half right. The root system was indeed shallow. The task was anything but easy. I tried a variety of tools, but finally settled on a pickaxe and a long-handled shovel. It took four hours stretched over two days but we finally broke the large root ball loose. I say "we" because Debbie provided some critical assistance at the end by using some long-handled loppers to snip through the last remaining roots that I couldn't get to with the pickaxe. We finished the job this morning, too late to include in the preceding animation.

Photo - Loquat root ball

That's about 150 pounds of loquat stump, roots, and embedded soil and rocks. I'm probably going to have to chainsaw it down the middle in order to load it into the pickup for disposal. My chiropractor will finally be able to afford that swimming pool she's been saving up for.

Replacement of the loquat tree is a challenging issue. It provided a rather significant privacy screen for our backyard and even our house, and we're not sure what to replace it with. We have a lot of options, ranging from another tree to multiple tall shrubs. I'm sort of partial to a vitex tree because they're fast-growing, but magnolias and desert willows are also still in the mix.

At the end of the day, we're thankful the damage from the winter storm wasn't worse, and we've actually been able to upgrade some of the landscape that we weren't really thrilled with but lacked motivation to do anything about. We're also thankful that we can afford the cost of replacement plants, and that we have the physical strength to do the work (if not the mental acuity to avoid it).
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 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. 

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.