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.

Howdy, buckaroos! Today is National Chocolate With Almonds Day, and I can't think of too many more magnificent combinations (although those chocolate-filled chocolate marshmallows come close, because too much chocolate is never enough). 

Today we're stumbling through a variety of topics, so let's not dawdle.

 I had a birthday recently and scored this sweet drone: a DJI Air 2s. Now you may be asking, why do you need another drone? Well, alert Gazette readers will no doubt recall that a year or so ago, an unfortunate series of events, starting with my thinking that I knew how to fly a drone, sent my old aircraft -- a DJI Spark -- crashing into one of the trees near our house. I managed to rescue it, but the rescue was even more damaging than the crash. (Note to self: Concrete is hard.) As a result, the camera has some issues. Also, the battery life on the Spark is only about 12 minutes or so, and one of its "smart" batteries devolved into a moron battery and is most useful as a paper weight.

Photo - DJI Air 2s droneAnyway, the new drone is a quantum leap ahead, and sports way more capabilities than I'll ever figure out or use. For example, it takes 5.4K video. What the heck is 5.4K video? I have no idea, but it sounds cool, and when you google "5.4K video" you mostly come up with links about the Air 2s drone, so it sounds like nobody else really knows either. But the drone also takes 20mp photos, and I DO know what that means, as do you.

The battery life is terrific -- 30+ minutes and I have three of them. The downside is that I'm accustomed to planning flights of 10 or 12 minutes and then landing. So now I have to figure out what to do with all the extra time. It's a good problem to have.

Here's an aerial photo I took of our house. It should provide a clue as to why our internet service is so sucky; we don't have access to cable and the trees block all the line-of-sight broadcast services. We're fortunate that we can point a dish at a satellite; otherwise, I'd be carving this post on a slab of stone with a chisel.

Photo - Our tree-surrounded house as seen from a drone hovering at around 75 feet

And, speaking of flying...and crashing...

As I was going out our sliding glass doors to put some cedar plank salmon on the grill, I a heard a soft *thump* about the same time I closed the door. I thought nothing of it until I started back in the house and only then noticed two little birds lying on the patio.

Photo - Two American goldfinches on the patio, one stunned and one deceased, after flying into the glass door
Two finches, one stunned and the other deceased, after flying into the glass door

I don't know if the birds (which we believe are American finches) were fighting or playing, but they apparently simultaneously flew into the glass door, a fatal collision for one of them.

The stunned bird remained in the position shown above for a disturbingly long time, and we began to worry that it was badly injured. After a few minutes of observation, I coaxed it into my hand and carried it to the back fence.

Photo - American goldfinch perched in my palm
This beautiful little bird seemed content to rest in my hand for a while.

I placed it on the metal fence top rail, where it struggled to keep its footing...but it suddenly took wing and flew away, apparently recovered from its collision. It's just unfortunate that both birds didn't survive.

OK, there's one more wildlife encounter to share...but first, a warning:

Snake-related text and photos below
Snake-related text and photos follow

So, in the last three days we've encountered three cottonmouths (aka water moccasins) either in our yard or within a half block of our house. This is highly unusual; we had seen only one of these snakes out of the water in the three preceding years we've lived here. I don't know if the heavy rains we've had during the past month has contributed to their appearances on land, but it's a bit spooky.

The most recent encounter occurred last evening. We had taken our golf cart into the neighborhood after dinner just to enjoy the non-rainy weather. We spent some time visiting with friends a few blocks away, and it was shortly after dusk when we headed back home. As we drove down the low water crossing, here's what our headlights illuminated:

Photo - Cottonmouth snake with gaping mouth

This one wasn't nearly as brightly colored as the previous two we had come in contact with, but it would be hard to find a more typical or representative photo of a cottonmouth. For example, you can easily see where it gets its name. That wide-mouthed stance, known as "gaping," is designed as a warning that it's not to be trifled with. You might even be able to make out the fangs in the photo.

The jagged edges of the patterns on its back are another identifier, as is the thick body that rapidly narrows to the tail. And here's another typical warning behavior:

Animated GIF showing cottonmouth vibrating its tail as a warning

That's right; a rattlesnake is not the only serpent that vibrates its tail when it feels threatened. In fact, this behavior is found in a number of snake species around the world. And contrary to the belief of some people, these other snakes haven't learned from rattlesnakes; rather, the rattlesnake evolved to maximize the effect of this behavior.

It's worth noting -- no, strike that (no pun intended) -- it's essential to note that I had to coax the snake into both the gaping and tail vibrating mode by waving my hand close to it (but not so close as to be in danger; I'm not that big an idiot!), and as soon as I stopped waving my hand, it closed its mouth and stopped the tail shaking.

I finally located a stick and gently nudged it back toward the creek. It never made an attempt to strike at me or at the stick, although it didn't immediately take the hint. But after a few such nudges, it finally wriggled its way down the culvert and disappeared into the rushing water on the low side of the crossing.

You're probably tired of reading about these encounters, and I'm getting a bit tired of running into these snakes. I hope that when the weather settles down, we'll get back to our old habits of avoiding each other.

Views of a Vibrant Visiting Viper
July 6, 2021 2:11 PM | Posted in:

Snake warning sign

Warning: This post is about venomous snakes and contains multiple photos of one of those said snakes. Proceed according to your comfort level.

Yesterday, we received almost three inches of rain in a very short period of time. The creek behind our house overflowed the low water crossing and shut down traffic for a few hours. It also apparently disturbed some of the resident wildlife.

Our house sits on a lot that slopes down toward said creek, and when we get copious quantities of precipitation, the runoff forms some pretty significant streams at the edge of our property. Debbie and I were looking out at them from one of our bathroom windows when I spotted a small snake sliding over a retaining wall into the lawn.

From a distance, it appeared to me to be a copperhead. That excited me, because even though I know they are found in this general area, I've never spotted one. I grabbed my phone, an umbrella, and a pair of boots, and went searching for the little guy while Debbie kept an eye on him through the window.

She was able to point me in the right direction, and I took a few this one:

Photo - Juvenile cottonmouth resting in our lawn

The snake was about 18" long, so it was easy to lose sight of him in the grass.

After a couple of minutes of me pointing my phone in his face (note: I'm referring to the snake as a "him," but I have no idea how to sex a snake and I'm not interested in learning if it involves getting any more personal), he made an about face and slithered into one of the streams rushing toward the creek. When we last saw him, he was caught up in the current going over the retaining wall. Adios, amigo!

Back inside, I was able to get a closer look at the details of the snake, and realized that it wasn't a copperhead after all, but a juvenile cottonmouth (aka water moccasin). I did post a photo on the Central Texas snake ID page to get confirmation, where the patient moderators explained for the hundredth time how to distinguish between the two species. Based on the comments on that Facebook post, brightly colored juvenile cottonmouths confuse a lot of folks, so the photo offered a good lesson on identification.

In any event, our excitement was over as we bid farewell to our visitor.

Or so we thought.

About an hour later, the rain had stopped and I asked Debbie if she wanted to walk down an look at the low water crossing. I went out through the front door ahead of her, and opened the gate to our courtyard...and almost stepped on the same snake (or an identical twin) that we had earlier seen swept down to the creek!

It was lethargic from the chilly rain, so I once again started taking pictures. (And yes, our walkway tends to get really muddy from heavy rainfall runoff; that's why it appears that the snake is resting in a quagmire.)

Photo - juvenile cottonmouth
Photo - juvenile cottonmouth
Photo - juvenile cottonmouth

Two key identifiers for cottonmouths are the jagged edges on the pattern on their back (copperheads generally-but-not-always have smooth-edged patterns that resemble Hershey's kisses) and the black horizontal stripe across the eyes (see the middle photo above; these stripes are absent from copperheads).

Neither of us were particularly thrilled with the prospect of having a resident cottonmouth in our courtyard (or anywhere in our yard, for that matter), so I asked Debbie to go into the garage and get my snake tongs so we could relocate him.

Photo - Juvenile cottonmouth held in tongs

The snake was unappreciative of my desire to relocate it to a more desirable (to us, anyway) location and it argued a bit with the tongs.

The preceding photo provides another lesson, this time regarding the often-misleading perspective of photos. If one didn't know better, one might think this is a much larger snake than it really is, and is perhaps closer to me than might be advisable. I assure you that I was never even close to the business end of this serpent.

I realize that some of you (OK, ALL of you) will think I'm weird for getting excited about this interaction, but whether we like it or realize it, we coexist with wildlife in many shapes, and to me, this is simply one pretty cool variation.
This is the time of year when turtles start trekking across the countryside in search of the perfect spot in which to start a family. In other words, they dig a nest and lay eggs. I've covered this phenomenon before here on the Gazette, but it seems that Nature throws a curve ball just when you least expect it.

About a week ago, I noticed a large turtle in the vacant lot adjacent to our house. That lot has been the site of many turtle nests through the years, and I immediately recognized the drill.

The female turtle digs a hole with her hind legs, creates mud in a process which we'll leave to your imagination, lays eggs and positions them (a euphemism for "cramming them down into the mud") with her hind feet.

Photo - Turtle in nesting position
This is either a river cooter or a mud turtle. I confess my ignorance.

Once she's finished depositing the eggs -- a process that can take an hour or more -- she covers the nest and attempts to restore the ground to its original state, again using her back legs. This process of concealment is remarkably effective.

Photo - The concealed nest
I placed a length of PVC pipe close to the nest so that I could locate it again.
That's how well the turtle's restoration works.

Unfortunately for the turtles, the surface concealment doesn't protect the nest from predators who rely on their sense of smell for detection of food sources. The eggs often fall prey to raccoons and armadillos. In fact, there was a disturbed nest a few yards away littered with shards of egg shells, evidence of a recent raid.

Those predators are efficient hunters. My pal Scott, who lives a mile or two away, told me that he observed a red-eared slider laying eggs a few weeks ago. He intended to try to protect the nest, but wasn't able to do so immediately. That same evening, the nest was raided and the eggs consumed. So, the lesson to be learned is that immediate protection is important.

The suggested method for protecting a nest is to put a wire cage over it...something that will prevent predators from digging it up, but will still allow the hatchlings to escape three or four months down the road. I'm planning to do that, but in the meantime, I've covered the nest with a couple of boards weighted with glass blocks.

Photo - Covered nest
A drone's eye view of the covered nest.

The story doesn't end there, however. An hour or so later I noticed the turtle moving back toward the creek behind our house, where she presumably resides when she's not laying eggs. I walked over to get one last photo to complete the documentation, and that's when a delightfully surprising scene began. For once, I had the presence of mind to start recording, and here's the resulting video.

The two young armadillos appear to be the remaining pair of quadruplets that I introduced a few weeks ago. This is not the first time we've seen a pair of youngsters foraging in this same area during daylight hours, and it could be that all four of them are still around and we're just seeing them in pairs.

In any event, it was very cool to witness the interaction between the two species. Forget Alien vs. Predator; I rather see Turtle vs. Armadillo any day.
A week or so ago, while wandering through the Desert of Lost Creativity, I stumbled onto the idea of doing an AMA post. I solicited questions via Faceborg and this here blog-like thing, and promised to consider answering them. Some of y'all joined in, and in keeping with the ongoing theme of the Gazette, threw out a mix of queries both serious and silly. I expected no less from alert Gazette readers, who, as a group, are above average in every respect (and who would be way above average except for a couple who drag the curve down. You know who you are.).

Since I've always(ish) been true(ish) to my word, I said I would answer your questions, so here goes.

But first, here's a brief video of a mud turtle facing off against two young armadillo punks.

Animated GIF of mud turtle lunging towards two curious young armadillos

My pal and former co-worker and neighbor, Ken, asked "who is Paisono [sic] Pete?"

Well, Ken, I don't know a Paisono Pete, but I can tell you with absolute authority that Paisano Pete is the world's biggest roadrunner, and stands at the corner of Dickinson Blvd (aka US Highway 285) and Main Street in Fort Stockton, Texas. OK, he's not an actual roadrunner; they're notoriously uncooperative and would be highly unlikely to stand in place for decades. He's really just a fiberglass statue. Hope you're not too disappointed.

My pal and fellow Aggie, Larry, asked "have you taken care of the car warranty yet?"

Larry, if I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times...quit calling me about that *(&%^*( car warranty! Not only are you annoying me, but you're tying up my phone and I'm afraid I'm going to miss finding out why the IRS is about to arrest me.

My pal and former business associate, Stephen, asked for my DL and Birthday and favorite password.

Steve, I'll be happy to share my dental lab with you, and I'm sorry your teeth are bothering you again. Did my recommendation for that periodontist in Orla not work out? As usual, my birthday is coming up, so watch for it; I really need a new iPad...thanks for asking. I don't have a favorite password, though. I have TWO of them (thereby doubling my security). I'll share them here in pig latin so nobody else can steal them: asswordpay (that makes me laugh every time!), and asswordpayootay.

My pal and former client/collaborator, Burr, posed a very serious question: "what's the worst part of getting older?"

Burr, since we're all getting older and have been every second since the minute we were born, I'll assume you mean "what's the worst part of being the age I am?" For me, that means staring down the barrel of a seventh decade. And for me, the worst part of this age is the realization that the days of personal improvement are behind least in terms of physical and mental capabilities. I don't sense it daily, but periodically I'm reminded that I can no longer do or think or speak (or, obviously, write) as well as I previously could, and there's no logical reason to believe that trend will be stalled, much less reversed.

Fortunately, I don't tend to dwell [too much] on that fact. And, increasingly, I take comfort in knowing that the spiritual realm isn't subject to the same constraints imposed by age. God's grace has always proven sufficient, and I believe it always will. Lately, Galatians 5:22-23 has simultaneously challenged and assured me that the fruit of the Spirit -- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control -- are attributes that will not abate through the passage of time, but can actually increase. I think that's pretty cool.

By the way, I'd be interested to hear your answer to your question.

As long as we're being serious...

My pal and cousin Wendy asked "what is your greatest regret?"

You mean besides coming up with this Ask Me Anything exercise? ;-)

That's a quite thought-provoking question, Wendy (as you knew it would be). And it's sort of the flip side to Burr's query, because it makes me look back on my life as opposed to looking ahead.

There's no huge elephant-in-the-room regret that I can single out, but there are a ton of things I did or decisions I made that I wish I had the ability to go back and change. (Buying a Plymouth Neon would be pretty close to the top of that list. As would eating a salad at the Chili's in Midland during the Great Shigellosis Epidemic of the Eighties.)

I can think of so many times I've disappointed or failed or mistreated other people, to the point where it's almost unbearable to contemplate in the aggregate. Fortunately, again, God's grace and the kindness of others have salved most of that. But if I had to focus on a single, albeit amorphous "regret," it would have to be that I wasn't as good a son or brother or husband or friend as I should have -- and could have -- been.

Whew. How about those Astros, huh?

My pal and former fellow church member Suzanne asked "why did y'all move away from Midland?"

The answer to that question is fairly complicated, Suzanne, but it's a combination of what repelled us in Midland and what attracted us where we landed in Horseshoe Bay.

We lived in Midland for 35 years. We got there in 1982, so we got to "enjoy" three-plus decades of boom-and-bust oil bidness. That got old (although I confess, almost guiltily, that we were never affected as directly and severely as many of our friends and acquaintances). Toward the end, we grew tired of the traffic and the trash and the lines to get into restaurants. Midland had changed in a lot of ways in those decades, and many of the changes weren't positive, from our perspective.

In addition, many of our friends were also retiring and moving away from Midland, for mostly the same reasons I describe above. Our social network was dissolving to some extent. We were also not completely content with our church experience, but I don't want to get into that. Our family ties to the area were also disappearing as parents passed away.

At the same time, we had found a place that seemed to offer what we had begun to lose in Midland. We found a church that immediately felt like home from the first visit. We found a community of people with shared values, and one where some of those aforementioned friends also ended up. We found upgraded entertainment opportunities (live music, dances, water sports) and beautiful scenery.

Look, I don't mean to disparage Midland, and especially not Midlanders; some of our favorite people in the world still live there. In fact, the people are what we miss most about Midland. But we all have different priorities in life, and in my experience, those priorities can change over time. Ours did, and the result was that Midland no longer offered many of the things that make us happy and content.

I would also be lying if I said Horseshoe Bay is perfection, because there are a number of things about living here that we wish were different. But, hey, that's what Heaven is for, right?

My pal and fellow Fort Stocktonite, who goes by Merle (I think there's a witness protection program angle here, but I'm not going there), asked the penetrating question, "I don't hear the radio sound in the house but when I go to bed I hear the sound threw [sic] the pillow?"

This has puzzled philosophers and medical professionals through the ages, Merle, so I'm not sure why you think I have the answer. But I'll take a shot. 

When the cochlea stimulates the auditory nerve by way of the vestibule and the semi-circular canals, it can set up sinusoidal plane waves whose amplitude and frequency will often intrude upon consciousness, and present itself in peculiar-yet-interesting ways.

OK, I'm just kidding. What is really happening is that the voices in your head have grown weary of speaking to you and not getting any answers, so they're now singing. Indulge them, would you? They've put in a lot of practice time.

My pal and former fellow blogger Gwynne, being the rebel CPA that we all know her to be, violated the rules (unwritten but nonetheless universally understood) and asked two questions: "Over or under?" and "Yellow or blue?"

These are trick questions and I'm not falling for your clever ruse, Gwynne. My guiding philosophy has always been (1) to never get involved in a land war in Asia, and (b) avoid questions about position and color.

[Over and blue]

And, finally, my pal and former co-worker Larry asked a question designed to get me in more trouble than Rudy Giuliani's makeup technician. To wit: "What was your involvement in the alternative ARCO Spark? Were you or Joe (last name redacted due to an active restraining order) involved in the IPB men's bathroom analysis?" (Again, two questions; what's with you guys, anyway?)

The answers to these questions requires more context than time, space, and the statute of limitations allows. Suffice it to say that someone at some point published an unauthorized satirical version of the official intraoffice newsletter of a Fortune 100 company and it somehow garnered the attention of some of the management of said company. Hilarity ensued, because we all know that corporate executives love a good satire. And they would have loved this one, had it been, well, you know...good. Among the articles in the alt-pub was an exposé of the best and worst restrooms in one of said corporation's office buildings in Dallas. The editorial and writing staff remains anonymous to this day, and I have no idea why Larry would even ask me about it. For the record, I never went to the bathroom on the job; that wouldn't have been fair to my employer. So I couldn't possibly have ranked the alleged bathrooms in that alleged building.

I think that about covers it. Many thanks to everyone who wasted invested their valuable time by indulging me in this narcissistic endeavor. I'm just grateful that no one asked any math questions.

AMA (Ask Me Anything)
June 23, 2021 8:55 AM | Posted in:

I posted this to my Facebook page yesterday, but I realize that not everybody comes here via that accursed popular medium.

An invitation to Ask Me Anything

Y'all are probably getting tired of all the nature-related articles on the Gazette so I'm going to try something different: AMA. All the really cool people are doing this nowadays, but I don't care -- I'm going to do it, too: Ask Me Anything. Just post a question in the comments and as long as it doesn't involve my social security or credit card numbers, or my preferences in Greek yogurt, I'll consider answering it in an upcoming blog post.
If nobody has a question, I'll have to ask myself questions, and do you really want to see something like that?

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

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).

It's springtime and love is in the air. Also mosquitos, but that's not what we're talking about today. What we are talking about is the appearance of babies of various non-human species.

We've been monitoring the progress of the red-shouldered hawk nestling that's in a live oak tree down the street from our house (see here and here for previous updates). I launched the drone yesterday to check in on the little guy, and the change from last week is pretty dramatic. He or she was completely snow white then, and now it's beginning to show the typical hawk coloration. (I couldn't get the drone in just the right spot to get the bird's head; it's apparently pretty shy. Darned paparazzi!)

Photo - Red-shouldered hawk nestling

Speaking of birds, Debbie has installed a couple of feeders on our back fence. Well, technically, I installed the feeders under her supervision, but she keeps them filled. Or she tries to keep them filled. They both get emptied pretty quickly, but the most recent one -- designed to hold munchies that are said to attract woodpeckers and similar birds -- has been suspiciously quick to require refueling. I say "suspicious" because we don't see enough birds during the day at that feeder to explain the disappearance of the food.

Now, the feeder is allegedly squirrel-proof, and we haven't seen any of those little rascals even attempt to raid it. But the nightly disappearance of food led us to believe something else was at work. So last night I set up a trail camera on a tripod in an attempt to identify the issue. I'm sure none of you will be surprised by what we found:

Photo - Raccoon raiding our bird feeder

Yep, the feeder may be squirrel-proof, but raccoons didn't read that part of the manual.

Animated GIF of raccoon raiding our bird feederThis morning, I raised the height of the feeder another 18" or so and we'll see how adept they are at breaking into the new installation. Frankly, I'm not optimistic. I think the feeder is out of reach as long as they stay on the fence, but we may have to resort to putting Vaseline on the pole to prevent them from getting to the food by that route. Stay tuned!

Now, back to the youngsters. A few days ago I spotted four (FOUR!) small armadillos nosing around in the vacant lot on the west side of our house. Debbie and I headed out to see how close we could get to them. As it turned out, we could get pretty in right on top of them. They were laser-focused on rooting up worms, grubs, and other insects. 

It's rare to see armadillos during the day. They typically sleep about sixteen hours a day, similar to human teenagers on summer break, and forage for food at night. But we've had a lot of rain lately and that seems to increase the likelihood that they'll be out during daylight hours.

However, it's not unusual to have four youngsters together (although I've never seen it in person before). The nine-banded armadillos we have in Texas always give birth to identical quadruplets.

I put together a four minute video of their antics; feel free to check it out. They're cute little rascals, and fun to watch...but if they decide to use our lawn as a buffet, I'll be forced to induct them into the Fire Ant relocation program. (Bonus feature: See if you can spot the misspelled word! There's never an autocorrect around when you need it.)

COVID Cooking: Chile Rellenos
May 28, 2021 10:54 AM | Posted in:

So, I was doing some spring cleaning, hosing down the Gazette archives, when I ran across some articles that I never got around to publishing, due to my incredibly busy regimen of being retired. And I realized that the Gazette's Food & Drink category was more lacking in nutrients than a Fletcher's corn dog at the State Fair. I'm not sure why that is, although it could be that I'd rather eat than write about eating. Anyway, here's something from last May to bulk up the category.

Like almost everyone else in America, we've done considerably more cooking and eating at home since the advent of COVID-19. Of course, by "we" I mean Debbie. She's a very good cook and I'm not, so my role is assistant/table setting/salad maker/dish washer (OK, I am in charge of the outdoor grilling, but I'm not sure that really qualifies as cooking). I do have my own knife, and that's not nothing.

Our BC (Before Covid) meal rotation didn't vary that much: cedar plank salmon on the grill, spaghetti (her scratch-made sauce is better than anything we've ever gotten from a jar), the occasional rotisserie chicken or slow cooker roast. The AC (After Covid) menu has expanded considerably, and it's gotten more adventurous. Case in point: earlier this week, we made chile rellenos (I had to look it up to make sure it's not "chiles relleno").

Debbie found some really pretty poblano peppers, and with a recipe in hand harvested from the internet, we embarked on this culinary adventure. And this time, I was an active participant, albeit one serving at the behest of the head chef.

What follows is not a recipe...just a primarily pictorial presentation of pepper preparation as we personally processed the prescribed program.

The first step is to roast the peppers in order to more easily peel them. Two minutes per side under a broiler is sufficient; I was in charge of this task and I left them in a bit too long. No harm done, except the peppers were more delicate which made the stuffing messier than it needed to be.

The roasted chiles were allowed to cool for five minutes under a dish towel (this softens the skin), then they were peeled and sliced open.

Photo - Poblano peppers
Over-roasting makes the peppers dangerously soft and subject to tearing.

The core and seeds were removed with a spoon, and the peppers were stuffed. We used a "Mexican style blend" of shredded cheese and some leftover rotisserie chicken. 

Photo - Poblano peppers
Overstuffed chairs and peppers are both wonderful inventions.

Debbie used toothpicks to keep the stuffing in place. The stuffed peppers were coated with flour and then slathered with whipped egg whites, in preparation for frying.

Photo - Stuffed poblano peppers
Ready for the frying pan...

The coated peppers were fried in vegetable oil. They may not look like much, but looks are much less satisfying than taste.

Photo - Chile Rellenos
Ready for plating

Charro beans and Spanish rice were the side dishes. I know that in most Mexican restaurants, rellenos are served smothered with a so-called Spanish sauce or with queso, but these had plenty of flavor on their own.

Photo - Plated Mexican dinner
Classic beauty...amirite?

The verdict? The cleaned plate speaks for itself.

Next time, we'll be more careful with the roasting and stuffing, in order to get a more uniform coating of batter. (Of course, the batter isn't required if you prefer your rellenos shamelessly naked.) We may also add some queso fresco to the shredded cheese blend, and use shredded chicken instead of pieces. But one thing is for sure: there will be a next time.

Give it a try. ¬°Buen provecho!

Photo - Empty plate
More, please. 

Update: Despite my bravado, as of May, 2021, we have yet to undertake this culinary adventure again. But we've eaten lots of tacos. That should count for something, right?