My Discover card expired recently and when I popped over to their website to request a new one, I discovered (ha!) that I could choose from about 150 different designs.

My initial thought was "well, this is sorta lame," the same reaction I have to folks who order checks decorated with puppies and hummingbirds (the exception being your puppy-and-hummingbird checks which are totally awesome). But as I scrolled through the design choices, I found many to be attractive, and I began to seriously contemplate an important question: what, exactly, do I want my credit card to say about me?

It would have been a simple matter to choose a design celebrating a sports team or a university or my home state, but all of those things are clich├ęs, and I'm anything but. (Feel free to nod your head in agreement.) So I passed on the Dallas Cowboys, the Texas Rangers, Texas A&M University (still...gig 'em), and the beautiful flag of the Great State of Texas...and landed instead on...the blank cassette tape. It is, frankly, a design of genius in its simplicity and realism, and it spoke to me in unmistakeable if vaguely hissing tones.

Some of you might have been born too late to enjoy the golden era of mixtapes, but I wasn't, and I made scores of them, in many different genres, via my Kenwood stereo setup comprised of a double tape deck capable of recording songs from vinyl (and later from a CD) or dubbing from a second cassette tape. So, I chose the blank cassette design option, and within a few days had it firmly in hand, ready to let it tell the world who, exactly, it was dealing with. Only...

Now I had another problem. The blank label on the cassette image screamed silently. Nobody in their right mind had an unlabeled mixtape (unless they were trying to hide something from their parents, or so I'm told). Sure, when I used the card in a restaurant, almost without exception, the server remarked on the cool design. But I could read in their eyes the judgmental question: are you really so unimaginative that you can't label a mixtape? 

I can no longer live with that unspoken question, and so now I will choose, once and for all, a label for my mixtape Discover card that will provide the authoritative answer. Only, I'm not sure how to do that.

I admit it; this is all about impressing whoever is running the card through the reader, which, 99% of the time, is a server in a restaurant or a club. But if I'm to truly pander to those servers, I need to tailor my fake musical message to the venue, right?

For example, say I'm in a jazz club. This might be a good choice...

Photo - credit card labeled 'The Essential Dave Brubeck'

But if I'm out for a night of two-stepping at, say, Luckenbach, Brubeck won't cut it. I need...

Photo - credit card labeled 'Viva Terlingua - Jerry Jeff Walker'

On the other hand, what if I'm in a blues club. Jerry Jeff and friends are awesome, but not authentically bluesy. So, this might be the right ticket...

Photo - credit card labeled 'Painkiller - Tommy Castro'

But, we're not always slumming, so to speak. Sometimes we frequent classy joints, with tablecloths and four spoons per place setting, and tuxedoed waitstaff. They demand better...

Photo - credit card labeled 'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik - Mozart'

But, on the other other hand, it's more likely that we're eating Tex-Mex in a downtown San Antonio restaurant, and el mesero can better relate to...

Photo - credit card labeled 'Pistolas y Leyendas - Vanessa del Fierro'

So many many scenarios to consider. It's enough to make you pay cash.

In the end, I have to be true to myself, and let the server judgments fall where they may. Here's the real me. Let it be said; let it be written.

Photo - credit card labeled 'Disraeli Gears - Cream' that I think about it...I really like Santana, and Corb Lund has recorded some great stuff lately, and The Mavericks are totally awesome, but George Strait really is The King, except that I also have an Elvis Presley "Best Of" album that exudes royalty, and Sinatra impresses everybody, and boy did Emerson, Lake & Palmer rock (although that could have been the brownies talking)...I wonder if a pencil will work?

Dream Sequence
August 1, 2020 2:45 PM | Posted in:

It's an indisputable fact that the most boring thing one can bring to a conversation is a detailed description of one's dream. Sure, that dream sequence involving Scarlett Johansson, a badger, and a NutriBullet smoothie machine created a permanent new neural pathway on your brain, but even your most fevered and fervent description of that dramatic episode will never fail to glaze the eyes of even your most faithfully forbearing friend. 

Dreams are the ultimate personal experiences and should not, under any circumstances, be shared with others.

But, let me tell you about mine, because they're really neat.

So, I'm in a desert somewhere, possibly in West Texas, mi patria, and I see a massive flying creature -- probably a hawk, possibly an eagle, but definitely not a pterosaur, because my dreams are realistic -- cruising overhead. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a tiny bird appears above the gigantic one, and it dives down to attack it. 

Mere words can't adequately describe the sheer pathos and drama of this scene, so I've brought my not inconsiderable artistic skills to bear to provide you with a completely realistic reenactment:

A dramatic reenactment in gif form

[Ed. - Yawn. Who among us hasn't seen this exact interaction between a mockingbird and a hawk?]

You're probably thinking, I've seen this interaction happen MANY times in the past, between a mockingbird and a hawk. Granted...but wait! The little avian attacker actually alights atop the big bird and rests there, triumphantly, for an instant, then launches itself back into the air and rapidly descends toward where I'm standing in observational awe.

This is where it gets...unusual. The bird isn't flying, exactly; it's more like it' a gentle downward spiral, and as it gets closer to earth, I see that it's transformed into a turtle. A turtle with glider-like wings. See, I told you this was worth waiting for.

A winged turtle
Artist's rendering...not my actual dream turtle. Mine was smiling.

The winged turtle makes a gentle landing on the dry desert soil, and I think, I really need to get a photo of this because no one will believe me otherwise. So I pull out my camera -- it might have been my phone; it's not like I can remember every detail of my dreams, so give me a break -- and start walking over to where I last saw the turtle.

On the way over to the landing zone, I spot a slice of pizza on the ground. Oh, cool...I need to get this photo also because a slice of pizza lying on the ground in the desert is the most instagrammable thing ever, so I make a quick detour to take a picture of the pizza. 

I then turn my focus back to the aero-turtle, only to find that it has vanished. I'm once again a victim of my short attention span, even in my dreams. There is a suspicious hump in the dirt which I tentatively explore with a stick, but my efforts are for naught. I'm left with only a pizza picture and the fond memories of the floating turtle with a Mona Lisa smile. I did mention the smile, didn't I?

At this point, I wake up. I ponder the meaning of the dream as I stagger from the bedroom to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. I also wonder why Scarlett Johansson is hanging out with a badger, but that's a question for another time.

Scarlett and her battle badger
It's been an interesting week or two around Casa Fire Ant, as we've had the opportunity to observe some rather unique natural phenomena without getting very far from home. Or, without even getting out of the house.

Let's start with that last thing, how about? I was sitting in the office working on some complex differential equations watching cat videos when Debbie called to me from the living room in a rather excited need to come see this! "This" turned out to be this:

Photo - Western ribbonsnake on our living room floor
Hard to know who was more surprised, the snake or us

Well. We've had numerous uninvited guests in our house since we moved here three years ago, including a Texas spiny lizard (guest bathroom), a green tree frog (2nd master bathroom), a six-inch-long centipede (kitchen), and numerous geckos and scorpions (pretty much everywhere). We're accustomed to inspecting our floors every morning when we first get out of bed, a natural function of living on a creek in a wooded area. But this raised the intrusive varmint factor to a new level; the first time (that we know of) that a serpent has entered our happy home.

It's a western ribbonsnake (Thamnophis proximus), a nonvenomous species of garter snake. It's hard to get a sense of scale from the photo but it was about fifteen inches long. We think it might have come inside to escape the horrible heat of the day, but the joke was on him as our a/c was out at the time. (Compared to having no a/c in July in Texas, a snake in the house is almost a pleasant diversion. Almost.)

I kept an eye on the intruder while Debbie found a small box. She wielded a broom and coaxed the snake into the box, which sounds easier than it was, as it had its own ideas about where it wanted to go. But we eventually captured it and I took it into the vacant lot next door for release with a stern warning not to return.

Photo - Western ribbon snake on the ground
That white dot on the head is the distinguishing mark for this species.

Neither of us could identify the snake so Debbie posted the top photo to the Central Texas Snake ID group on Facebook, which is an absolutely invaluable resource for anyone wondering about what kind of snake is on their dining room floor (or anywhere else). It's a moderated group run by a collection of snake experts who not only identify snakes but also educate us about their habits.

That resource came in handy again just a few days later when Debbie once again sighted a snake...but this time it was properly wandering in our back yard and not inside our house. It was a quick little fellow, but I was quicker. He was an absolute beast but I managed to wrestle him into submission:

Photo - DeKay's brown snake
Yes, I'm absolutely fearless in the presence of a four inch long baby snake.

This pretty little guy is a juvenile DeKay's brown snake (Storer decay), another harmless species. They primarily eat slugs, snails, and earthworms. Again, we had to turn to the aforementioned Facebook group for an identification (and, incidentally, the photo elicited a number of "oooh, how cute!" comments from the many female snake lovers in the group). And, as before, I simply released it back into the grass after the photo session. We're more than happy for it to eat all the snails and slugs it can find.

Our third encounter with nature didn't involve snakes, but skunks rank right up there in a list of Things You Don't Want To Spend Much Time With. 

We have a lot of skunks in and around our neighborhood. Often, when we head out for a run around sunrise, we have to alter our pace or route to avoid a skunk (or two...or three) staggering back home after a night of wild partying. But it was an evening encounter that continues to fascinate and puzzle us.

We were driving back into the neighborhood around dusk when we spotted movement a few yards out in the vacant lot just inside the gate. We immediately pegged it as a skunk, but as we drew closer alongside of the subject, our conversation went something like this:

Animation of a group of four skunks moving together
A big chunk of spunky skunks
Oh, it's TWO skunks...

No, wait...there's THREE of them...

Uh, there's another one!

Are you kidding me?! FIVE skunks?!

What we were witnessing was something I can only describe as a tightly knit swirling group of skunks, two adults and three young ones. One of the adults eventually broke away from the group and headed into the pasture while the remaining group of four stayed packed together and followed its lead.

We assume that we were seeing a defensive maneuver designed to protect the youngsters, in reaction to the presence of our vehicle. I haven't been able to confirm this despite my extensive efforts at research, i.e. a couple of google searches, but I'm going with that explanation until someone tells me differently.

The light was fading fast and our iPhone cameras are notoriously inept in low light, but in spite of the poor quality, the above gif might give you a idea of what was going on. Trust me, there are four skunks in that group.

So, pretty exciting, huh? Our motto around here has now become, "what now?" 

Uh, I better go...I think I hear a howl coming from the hall closet...
I celebrated a monumental event last week. It wasn't my wedding anniversary, nor my wife's birthday, although those things did take place...but they do pretty much every year. No, this was something that happens only very rarely: I paid off my iPhone.

I had been anticipating this blessed occurrence for a few months, but that anticipation didn't lessen the sheer joy of opening the monthly emailed bill from AT&T and seeing a significant reduction vs. the previous 24 months. I basked in the glow of that reduced payment for almost a full day...and then the phone broke.

My face, cancelled
I've been canceled by my own phone.
To be more specific, Face ID on my iPhone X stopped working, meaning that I have to enter a code EVERY. STINKIN'. TIME. I want to use the phone for anything other than a camera or the world's most expensive weak flashlight. 

If you have an iPhone without Face ID, you can't possibly relate to the amount of angst and anger this situation engenders. For one thing, unless you have a phone older than seven years, you have fingerprint recognition, aka Touch ID. But when the geniuses at Apple decided to implement Face ID, they deleted the Touch ID capability, so one has Jetson technology while Face ID works, and Flintstones tech when it no longer does.

And it's not just phone access either; many apps allow the use of Face ID to bypass passwords, thereby allowing easier use of strong passwords. That's really cool, until you have to type a 20-character password to open an app instead of just staring at it. (Yes, I do use a password manager -- I'm not an animal -- but guess how you get into the password manager in order to copy the password in order to use the nauseum.)

The loss of Face ID on an iPhone is sufficiently common that there are websites that help you diagnose which of the three parts that make up the capability may have malfunctioned and rendered it inoperable. I particularly liked this one, because I was able to replicate the three required tests and diagnose the issue. The website even provides the solution, and I quote: "...the problem cannot be fixed." Those may be the five saddest words in the English language, although "the margarita machine is broken" runs a close second.

It turns out that -- according to the website -- my phone's dot projector filed for unemployment and then quickly qualified for disability. What's a dot projector? you may ask. Heck if I know, but these guys do. According to them, and I have no reason to doubt their expertise, the dot projector does just what the name says: using high-intensity LED lights, it projects 29,929 dots onto your face, thereby giving the tiny nerd wizards that live inside your phone the data needed to build a mathematical model of your lovely visage. (It's worth noting an unsubstantiated rumor has it that Apple first tried using lasers but quickly gave up the idea when they realized that face-melting wasn't just an adjective applied to heavy metal music.)

The use of lights is a brilliant approach (see what I did there?) because it lets the phone recognize you in the dark. Also, since math is hard, nobody else can solve your individual equation which is the main reason a photo of Brad Pitt would never successfully unlock my phone...not that I ever tried. As far as you know.

Anyway, the whole shebang is pretty cool, as long as it works. But I apparently bought the special Blade Runner Replicant edition of iPhone with the automatic Face ID countdown timer designed to coincide with the final payment on the phone.

Now, all of us who are on Facebook and/or Twitter know that there really aren't any problems that can't be fixed other than stupid. For example, I could just jack up this phone and run a new one under it. Voila! Fixed! And, frankly, this is a semi-possibly-potentially attractive option. However, it is rumored that the next generation of Replicants iPhones will feature both Face AND Touch ID and while having both features will no doubt inexplicably introduce exponentially more things that can go wrong, surely I can be patient long enough to give them a try. I'd really like to savor a few more months of lower phone bills.

I do take a small measure of consolation from the fact that nowadays, wearing a mask defeats Face ID anyway. But with my luck, the pandemic will end next week and I'll be the only one who has to type in unlock codes and passwords. Bummer.
I received a lot of responses -- primarily via Facebook -- to yesterday's post about the Fire Ant Gazette-themed mask. And while I was gratified that so many were interested, I was a bit taken aback at the apparent perception by some that I was actively seeking help in promoting the Gazette.

Mockup of a Fire Ant truck nameplate
Don't tell anyone I did this.
I'll admit that I like the idea of this blog's logo appearing in every corner of the universe. I believe the world would be a better place if, for example, Ford made a Fire Ant Gazette edition of an F-150 pickup (the King Ranch is sooo 19th century).

However, I'll readily admit that I'm too lazy to do anything to make that happen...and you should be, too. I have no ambition for the Gazette other than for it to be an outlet for the sad efforts that pass for creativity, and for handy armadillo trapping tips.

In the almost eighteen years it's been going, I've never attempted to monetize the blog. I don't take ads; I don't accept third party posts (that's right; I have no one to blame but myself); I've never contemplated setting up a "tip jar." Even the items for sale on my CafePress store -- which I hadn't visited myself in five years until the mask thing came up -- are priced at cost. If anything, this site costs me money as the hosting and domain name registration fees are a hundred and some odd dollars each year.

No, this is not about the money or -- believe it or not -- amassing hordes of readers. Every time I write and post something here, I have one or two specific people in mind as the target audience (this one's for y'all, Joaquin and Penelope*), and if I hit the mark with them, I've succeeded. Global fame is just icing on the cake., I've forgotten where I was headed with this. Oh, wait...yeah, so...if you want to do something wild and crazy like tell innocent unsuspecting folks about the blog, feel free to knock yourself out (or let them do it after they fall for it and actually come here and read some of my stuff and never forgive you). I do appreciate the thought, but it's really not necessary. I'll always be here for Joaquin and Penelope**.

*Not their real names. HIPPA, you know.

**OK, these are their real names, just not the other ones.
As you can see below, in an obvious act of shameless self-promotion, I have commissioned a limited edition run of Fire Ant Gazette masks guaranteed* to absolutely prevent the transmission of COVID-19 cooties.

Actual human modeling actual Fire Ant Gazette mask
I'm told that the more of my face that's covered, the better
for everyone. COVID or no.

OK, so when I say limited edition, I really mean I could only afford two of them, one for me and one for my wife who wasn't given the opportunity to say no. However, you too can have your own personalized mask via the good folks over at CafePress. It doesn't have to be the awesome Fire Ant logo, either (maybe I'm not so shameless after all). Just jump over to this page, upload your graphic (JPG format recommended), pay your money ($18.87 per mask at the time of publication), and wait with unpersonalized-mask breath for a couple of weeks.

The masks are good quality, double-layered, and will accommodate carbon filters, two of which are included.

If for some ill-advised reason you absolutely have to have a Fire Ant mask, let me know and I'll recommend a good therapist provide you with a freshly minted graphic, piping hot off the Mac and ready for upload. I'm sad to have to report that I get absolutely nothing from any such purchase, although the upside is that I won't get thrown into a higher tax bracket.

*Not guaranteed. At all. This is the last time we let the interns in our marketing department loose without supervision.

Trapping Update: The Armadillo Abides
June 27, 2020 9:28 AM | Posted in:

Will you still need me, will you still feed me
When I'm sixty-four.

  -- Some obscure musical group

Armadillo trapping count over time
It's been a while since I posted anything about our varmint trapping endeavors at Casa Fire Ant, and although nothing of great significance has happened over the past few months, we have achieved a minor milestone: our 64th armadillo capture since we moved in about three years ago (wow...time does indeed fly).

"Why," you may ask, "is this a milestone?" Well, the answer should be obvious: it's the only way I could think of to use the lyrical reference atop this post. Even that's a stretch, because (a) we don't trap armadillos by feeding them, and (2) we certainly don't NEED them, except as subjects for a tedious series of articles.

It is worth noting, however -- if only for purposes of maintaining a reliable historical record -- that armadillos have figuratively left all the other species in the dust in terms of the numbers wandering into our traps. Here's the latest iteration of our classy trap status graphic:

Classy trap status graphic

The raccoon count has hasn't budged since last year. This phenomenon is closely related to the fact that I've put those traps in the attic which remains blessedly raccoon-free. Seriously, though, now that we've stopped putting out food in the traps, the raccoons have stopped coming. Who could have foreseen that?

Also, the T-rex count remains disappointingly low. I have no good explanation for that.

I thought it would be interesting to see how the armadillo trapping has progressed over time, so I wasted invested an inordinate amount of time on the animation shown above. Be sure to watch it over and over so that my ROI is enhanced.

At some point, one would think that I've surely decimated the local armadillo population. Granted, the females always give birth to quadruplets, so keeping up with the birthrate will be a never-ending challenge. But I also have a sneaking suspicion that I'm not only trapping neighborhood animals, but also those arriving via involuntary relocation. As in, other people are bringing their trapped armadillos into our neighborhood and releasing them. We are surrounding by semi-woodsy, uninhabited terrain, and a sufficiently sneaky person could easily dump an animal without being seen. And since we back up to a creek, the armadillos would logically head toward our location. This scenario makes sense to me, because I used to do the same thing early on, before I realized the implications.

But, since armadillos don't typically carry IDs, I have no way of proving anything. We'll just continue our program of catch and release (the latter now taking place miles away in a totally uninhabited part of the county) and occasionally bore you with updates. It's not as though I have anything better to do.

Armadillo peering out of trap
Agricultural Tragic album coverI was going to post a varmint trapping update today but then I realized that Corb Lund's latest album just dropped and the critter count cuento will just have to wait.

You have to be a long-time Gazette reader (I doubt there are many of you, but if you qualify -- bless your heart!) to know that I've been a Corb fan for at least a decade. I won't rehash my fanboi proclivities (if you must know more, here's a place to start); suffice it to say that I think he's one of the premier songwriters working today in any genre.

Agricultural Tragic (the cognoscenti will know it as AgTrag) breaks little new ground, melodically. Corb's style is pretty unmistakeable. That's not a knock; his melodies stand up to repeated listening, and the lyrics range from delightfully silly to sophisticatedly poetic. He takes his time when crafting songs, and they all exude personal authenticity (for more about his creative process, and about this album in particular, check out this podcast).

I have absolutely zero bona fides as a serious music critic, so I won't attempt to review the record in detail. But here are my one-line summaries of each AgTrag track:

  • 90 Seconds of Your Time - An attempt to dissuade an Army Ranger from hunting down a horse thief

  • Old Men - An ode to experience

  • I Think You Oughta Try Whiskey - An "old-style" duet with Jaida Dreyer; more about this below

  • Raining Horses - A tale of fecundity, but too much is never enough

  • Oklahomans! - Garth would be proud

  • Grizzly Bear Blues - Don't wait until you meet up with one to decide what you'll do

  • Dance With Your Spurs On - Life is short, know...

  • Louis L'amour - A paean to days past, an elegy for today's tragedies, in three-quarter time

  • Never Not Had Horses - A tribute to his cowgirl mom, a rancher and horsewoman from day one

  • Ranchin', Ridin', Romance (Two Outta Three Ain't Bad) - Chris LeDoux (RIP) would be proud

  • Rat Patrol - Who you gonna get to get 'em under control? Las ratas rockabilly

  • Tattoos Blues - We don't judge, but spelling can be pretty criticle
I'm hard-pressed to pick a favorite song on this album, although Grizzly Bear Blues is dangerously earwormish. But I do want to call special attention to I Think You Oughta Try Whiskey. I feel a kind of personal connection with this song, for no other reason than Debbie and I got to hear it performed live last November at the Coupland Dance Hall. Jaida Dreyer opened for Corb and his band (the Hurtin' Albertans), and then joined Corb for Whiskey. We had no idea at the time that it would make its way onto his next record.

Corb kinda likes it, as today's tweet announcing AgTrag focuses on it:

"Old school country duet" hits the bullseye. It's a throwback to some great "love you/hate you/can't live with you/can't live without you" songs. A couple that come immediately to my mind are You're the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly (Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty) and In Spite of Ourselves (Iris DeMent and John Prine).

Here's an acoustic version of Whiskey, via YouTube.

Whether you're a country music fan or not, if you get a chance to go to a Corb Lund show, do it. His band is tight, and they put on a great performance. Regardless, I recommend checking out his stuff wherever fine music is downloaded/streamed/vended.

Since I mentioned them, I'll save you the trouble of looking them up for comparison. (Note: John Prine's lyrics can skew a bit to the randy side. But also hilarious.)

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