Rock Squirrels on Spring Break?
April 24, 2018 10:26 PM | Posted in:

Last weekend, we discovered we were hosting unanticipated visitors in the form of a herd of juvenile rock squirrels. At one point, I counted six (6!) of them cavorting on and around our back yard deck. When they detected our presence, they would quickly dive under the deck, but just as quickly reappear.

We had seen adult rock squirrels living among the rocks (duh) lining the bank of the creek, but never considered that they might move from that environment to our back yard. I didn't particularly relish the thought of having a dray (look it up) living under the deck -- and I have no idea what the resident possum family thought about the new neighbors -- but grudgingly admitted that the young ones were fun to watch.

I put a GoPro camera on a stake and captured some of the following photos of the children at play. Other photos were taken from inside the house using a zoom lens. Click on each small photo to see a larger version.

Juvenile rock squirrels Juvenile rock squirrels Juvenile rock squirrels Juvenile rock squirrels Juvenile rock squirrels Juvenile rock squirrels Juvenile rock squirrels Juvenile rock squirrels This tree squirrel seems to be pretty disgusted by this turn of events Juvenile rock squirrels Juvenile rock squirrels

We watched them on and off through the weekend. An adult squirrel -- presumably either the mother or father -- would occasionally venture into the yard, but oddly enough it would generally retreat over the retaining wall to the creek bank rather than joining the kits under the deck.

But that changed on Sunday afternoon. With friends visiting, we were watching the squirrels go about their now-familiar busyness when we saw the adult (let's call it the mother) run across the lawn with something...furry...in her mouth. She was too fast to get a good look, but there seemed to be fewer kits playing than before. After we watched a repeat of that behavior, it was obvious that she was grabbing the youngsters one-by-one and taking them back to the creek bank. I grabbed my camera, as one does. I wasn't able to get any really clear photos, but I think you can discern the process of evacuating the pups.

Rock squirrel mother putting kit on notice Rock squirrel kit: 'aww, ma...do I hafta?' Rock squirrel mother carrying juvenile Rock squirrel mother carrying juvenile Rock squirrel mother carrying juvenile

I'm sure there's a logical explanation for temporary appearance and subsequent relocation to the more usual habitat, but here's my theory. I think this was the rock squirrel equivalent of a spring break trip for the kids to Disneyworld. All good things must come to an end, though, and the parents had to get back to work on Monday, so home they went. I'll be happy to entertain a better explanation.

In any event, the youngsters had no trouble readjusting to their creekside home. At almost any point during the day, we can peer over the fence and watch them busily engaged in their squirrely activities. 

Adult rock squirrel in its more normal habitat Juvenile rock squirrel in its more normal habitat Juvenile rock squirrel in its more normal habitat Juvenile rock squirrel in its more normal habitat Juvenile rock squirrel in its more normal habitat

Hate to end on a down note, but I suspect the snakes that live in and along the creek may be pretty happy about the return of this family, as well. But, so far, all six of the young ones are still up and around.
It's probably common knowledge that beavers slap the water with their tails as a warning about - or an attempt to startle - potential predators. They also tend to swim with their heads slightly above water but with their bodies slightly submerged.

So, you may be ask, why are you - a native Texan living in the heart of a beaver-impoverished state - giving this random lecture about the creature's behavior? Simply this: I watched a beaver swim in the creek behind our house last night. I have never heard of a beaver sighting in this area, much less seen one myself, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that they are indeed living in our neighborhood.

We came home around dusk after eating out with friends, and there were some significant thunderheads building up in the north, so I walking into the back yard to observe them. Our weather was calm and there was still enough light to see the creek, so I stood at the back fence and looked down at the water, about twenty feet away.

I saw a shape moving in the water and my first thought was "that's the biggest catfish I've ever seen in the creek!" My second thought was, "wait...what? We don't have catfish in the creek." The shape appeared to be 2-3' long, trailing something wide. I mentally cycled through some possibilities, trying to place it in a logical context. I knew there were nutria around the lake, but those are basically big rats with long skinny tails, and that didn't fit the profile of what I was watching.

The shape continued to swim slowly down the middle of the stream, and I figured I should attempt to get a photo or video to prove my sanity, even though the fading light made it doubtful that my aging phone's camera would capture anything recognizable. And fail it did, although perhaps not entirely of its own fault. What I managed to record was approximately five seconds of the ground.*

My view of the animal was blocked by a tree on the creek bank, but I expected it to come into sight in a clearing a few feet down the stream. It didn't, so I decided it had doubled back. I moved back down the fence line and sure enough, it was swimming the other direction. But my movement apparently caught its attention and its reaction confirmed that what I was watching was indeed a beaver. With a loud slap of the water's surface with its tail, it disappeared and I did not spot it again.

I described the encounter to MLB and she was initially skeptical, but after an extended conversation with Mr. Google, she confirmed that beavers are present pretty much throughout Texas, with the exception of the western part of the state. We also learned that they prefer still water, but Pecan Creek is very slow-moving with limpid pools forming at various bends, so it would not necessarily be a beaver-unfriendly environment. And, finally, they are most active right around dusk and dawn.

I realize that some of you live in areas where beavers are plentiful, but for me, this was akin to spotting a cheetah in our back yard. The variety of local wildlife continues to be a constant source of amazement and pleasure.

Have you ever encountered unexpected wildlife in your neighborhood? Tell us about it in the comments!

*Some of the fotografic failure was the fone's fault. You may have heard about the battery-related slowdowns in old iPhone models, and my 6s is dealing with that now. The camera is so slow to respond that when I tapped the record button and nothing happened, I hit it again. That resulted in my turning off the video instead of turning it on. Rinse and repeat, and the result is intriguing moving images of...dirt.

Relive your run, you masochist
March 13, 2018 2:05 PM | Posted in:

I'm a bit of a data junkie, and nowhere is this more evident than in the spreadsheets I've kept for decades detailing my workouts. I do this not because I have an accounting degree, nor because I'm OCD (although one of those things is definitely true and the other is probably true). I keep records as a motivational tool. The presence of blank rows on the spreadsheet is a reminder that I'm probably falling short of my workout goals...which aren't all that challenging but they do emphasize consistency.

For years I've tracked my running workouts with a phone app called MapMyRun. There's a similar app called MapMyRide for bicyclists, but I rely on my bike computer and rarely remember to turn on MapMyRide. I rely on MapMyRun to record time and distance; it also provides data on split times - which I generally don't care about - and elevation gain - which I care about now that I live in the Hill Country but the accuracy of which is questionable. It also has some social features that I absolutely don't use.

MapMyRun satisfies the data junkie in me, but life is more than data, right? (Feel free to discuss this burning question amongst yourselves; I'll wait.) Data can be enhanced by visualization, and I recently learned of yet another application that does just that for the workouts recorded by MapMyRun.

Relive is a free app that integrates rather seamlessly with MapMyRun (as well as other fitness apps such as Strava, Garmin, and others) to create a short video recapping your workout by unwinding the route onto a satellite map (said map is provided by ESRI, the good folks that make the gold-standard GIS software, ArcGIS). The aerial view doesn't exactly provide a virtual reality experience, but it is definitely an interesting way to relive (!) the workout. The app also drops a pin on the point of highest elevation on the route, then overlays some statistics at the end (duration, pace, mileage, elevation gain - which, again, should be taken with a grain of salt). The app also generates an elevation profile of the route that spools out along the top of the window as the video progresses.

Here are a couple of examples of my early efforts using the app.


Relive doesn't provide many options for the unpaid version of the app. You can specify whether the video will be automatically created as soon as you save your workout, vs. manually specifying when it should be created. You can do some minimal editing such as changing the title font or adding photos you took during the workout...and if you're coordinated enough to take pictures during a run, you have my admiration and respect. There's a paid upgrade (isn't there always?) that provides additional after-the-fact editing, but I haven't felt compelled to do that.

If you decide to try out the app, keep in mind that the app only retains 20 videos (I assume the paid version expands that number), and you must click the star icon to flag a video for saving. Otherwise, you can get back to the video only going to the link provided in the notification email, and that link is saved nowhere else (that I could find).

There's no compelling reason to make Relive a part of your suite of fitness apps, but it is an interesting concept. 

May God grant me the serenity to log the things I can, the discipline to avoid the things I can't, and the self-deception to think that it's all quite important.

tire change
February 6, 2018 4:35 PM | Posted in: ,

its tuesday afternoon and tonight is trivia night at the yacht club but thats not really important whats important is that my truck has had a slow leak in the right front tire some people would refer to it as the passenger side front tire but a lot of time theres no passenger in my truck so lets go with right front ok so i got tired of pulling out my craftsman air compressor every day or so to put about 6 or 7 pounds of air into the tire although i really like having an air compressor it makes me sort of feel like that tim allen guy in that tv show but thats also not important so i finally got tired as i already said so i decided to pull the wheel off and futon the spare and drive into town and leave it at discount tire the low air tire not the spare of course because doing the reverse would be silly and let them fix it presumably for free since thats where i bout it and that why i love discount tire so theres an immutable law of nature that all tire changes must be done in the rain and so it was this morning but you say have a garage why didnt you change the tire in the garage thats quite observant of your are you spying on me but anyway we are having some ok a LOT of removing done to our house and the garage is filled with stuff that shouldnt be there but theres nowhere else for it so i could only pull the truck into the garage about six feet so in reality i didnt really have to change the tire in the rain but if you know anything about honda trucks you also know that retrieving the little spare tire and jack from the cargo compartment in the truck bed requires contortions and power tools and cursing and in every case doing it in the rain hence the cursing so i get the spare and the jack and the special security lug nut socket which is supplied because honda truck tires are so coveted by thieves and i proceed to jack up the front of the truck in the shelter of six feet of garage only to discover that the truck is parked too close to my wife car and the jack handle won't fit so i have to go in the house to get the key fob for her car and pull it up a couple of feet so i can resume jacking the truck up so i can remove the wheel which if you recall is the front right one but first i slightly loosen the lug nuts before jacking the truck up because safety first we wouldnt want the truck to roll off the jack would we no we wouldnt thats really a dumb question so i finish jacking up the truck and i remove the lug nuts and give the wheel a tug and nothing NOTHING happens it doesn't budge its like its been welded to the whatever you call the part that the wheel is bolted onto what am i a mechanic i don't think so i give the tire a few feeble whacks with the jack handle and of course nothing happens so i take the next logical male step and kick the tire with the same result but then i remember i have a 36 inch pry bar and everyone should have a big honking pry bar if for no other reason than it looks bad*** having on your pegboard and so i stick one end of the pry bar into the rim and call upon it to do that one thing its named for but prying that wheel off is apparently not in its job description because once again nothing happens and now I'm thinking well crap I'm going to have to put the lug nuts back on and drive to discount tire and give them the entire truck and wait while they take off the tire with whatever magic tool they have for such things because surely I'm not the only person who's ever had a stuck wheel and wait thats right surely someone else has had this problem and if they did and if they solved it they would be smug and put the solution on the google so i ask the google how do you get a wheel unstuck and even though i misspell one of those words mr google still knows what I'm asking and gives me the answer which is to put the lug nuts back on but not tighten them then drive the car or truck in this case back and forth a few feet and the GUARANTEED that would PROBABLY fix the tight wheels so i think what do i have to lose so i reattach the lug nuts finger tight then back them off a couple of turns and unjacked is that the right term which requires about a hundred cranks of that little jack and i clear everything out of the way because safety first and get in the truck and back out of the garage a few feet and then drive back in a few feet and then i get out and repack the truck although i find i have pulled in too far so i have to move my wife car AGAIN so the jack handle clears it and i remove the lug nuts and sure enough the wheel comes right off!!! so i was relieved and now all i have to do is put on the spare which by the way i had earlier inflated to the suggested 60 psi max because its one of those juvenile spare tires with a 50 mph speed limit but thats fine because the speed limit between our house and discount tire maxes at 50 mph which you already know because you are apparently spying on me so i put the spare wheel on and proceed to put on the lug nuts and i follow the proper procedure which is to tighten the lug nuts finger tight then use the lug wrench to GENTLY tighten the them a bit further to make sure the wheel is properly seated before putting the full weight of the truck on it but you do that GENTLY because the truck is still on the jack and we don't want the truck rolling off the jack we've already covered that right because SAFETY FIRST and so what happens is that the truck rolls off the jack well *&*&$#*^&* but ha ha not harm done because i barely have the wheel off the floor but still that was stupid it wasn't entirely my fault but yeah it was so thats the story of changing a wheel but everything sales went fine and i love discount tire but not tiny little jacks that require a hundred cranks to lift a truck wheel one inch off the ground but i do also love my craftsman air compressor oh yeah and my 36 inch pry bar even if it didnt pry anything at the one time i needed it most



The. End.

The Fugitive Fox
January 25, 2018 10:26 AM | Posted in: ,

It's been a quiet couple of weeks at Casa de Fire Ant, at least from a trapping perspective. I haven't bothered to bait the raccoon trap for a variety of reasons -- laziness being at the top of the list -- although the armadillo trap has been armed and routinely ignored. I assume that either (1) the armadillos have evolved intellectually to the point where they recognize and avoid the danger, or (b) the trap has lost its scent. I'm going with (b) because the alternative is too scary to contemplate.

Fox sniffing around trapAlert Gazette readers will recall that I recently expressed a bit of frustration at what I believed to be theft by fox. I didn't have conclusive proof that I was being flimflammed by a fox, but the circumstantial evidence was powerful.

That changed last night.

I decided to risk another 88¢ can of sardines (the money is beginning to add up, folks; I'm thinking about starting a GoFundMe account to defray trapping expenses) as bait. I slid it into the trap around 10:00 last night and set the game camera on the ground a few feet away.

When I checked the trap this morning, the bait was gone and the trap was unsprung and empty. However, the game cam was finally able to record the canine caper, and here's the proof.



It may not be obvious from the video, but the fox actually steps on the trip plate. However, it appears that its weight is on the other forefoot and so the plate doesn't spring the trap door. That's fine with me; I don't really want to trap a fox. On the other hand, I also don't want them grabbing all the bait intended for raccoons.

If you're wondering what it appears to be eating just before entering the trap, I pour the juice from the sardine can onto the ground just outside the entrance as a way to entice animals to enter.

Gray foxes are pretty common around our neighborhood. On one occasion, as we drove into the neighborhood at night, we spotted three of them within fifty yards of each other. I don't know if the group is a family unit, or if there's just good hunting in the vicinity.

Some people incorrectly identify gray foxes as red foxes, presumably because the former do have some red fur on their chests and underbellies. But the two don't really look that much alike, and aren't even in the same genus. We may indeed have red fox in our area, but I've never seen one.

Another difference between the two species is that gray foxes are good climbers while the red species are not. Alert Gazette readers will recall this video of two (2!) gray foxes in our Midland back yard a couple of years ago. As you can see, they're quite adept at climbing trees and fences. I actually have a photo of a gray fox reclining on top of our roof, watching the world go by.


A Post-Modern Jukebox Sampler
January 14, 2018 3:34 PM | Posted in:

It's Sunday morning and I'm losing a fight with a cold and/or allergies, and I'm taking the lazy way out by blogging someone else's material...in this case (because, really, most of my stuff is stolen plagiarized borrowed from someone else) some music videos from Scott Bradlee's Post-Modern Jukebox. SBPMJ (hereafter referred to as PMJ for purposes of brevity) is one of the most imaginative and musically gifted groups around, and they probably don't get as much publicity as they should. (Alert Gazette readers will recall that I've mentioned them before on the pages of this here blog-like thing.)

PMJ's gift is taking songs by other artists and reworking them in ways that often elevate the musicality of those tunes, or transform them into a completely different genre. The musical genius is compounded by the absolute attention to detail in the videos the group assembles. 

We're fortunate that many of their performances can be found on YouTube, but I'll save you the clicks as well as the mental/psychic effort of deciding on the standouts by presenting the following list. Trust me; I know these things.

Barbie Girl - In the style of class Beach Boys

This song was originally recorded by the Scandinavian pop group Aqua in 1997, and a few years ago was voted "Worst Song of the Nineties" by those Rolling Stone readers with the mental wherewithal to work a mouse and browser. It also prompted Barbie maker Mattel to file an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit claiming copyright infringement. And, of course, the lyrics do not stand the test of time insofar as they are egregiously anti-feminist. (Here's the original video.)

Other than that, it's a wonderful little song...at least in the hands of Master Arranger Scott Bradlee.

Morgan James, the lead singer in this performance, plays the part of Barbie with a self-awareness that sustains the overall ironic tone of the arrangement. Her vocal chops are astounding, especially in the section where she simulates a theremin.



Blurred Lines - Bluegrass Version

Musically-woke readers are likely wondering why an historically squeaky-clean Gazette would include a song with frankly pornographic lyrics (and I won't stoop to linking to the original video) that has been dubbed by some as the most distasteful song of 2013, the year it was recorded by Robin Thicke. Blurred Lines was co-written by Pharrell Williams (!) and Thicke (who later claimed he was stoned on Vicodin and that Williams did most of the lyrical damage). This song was also the subject of a [successful] copyright infringement lawsuit (appeal pending, as they wont to be). Gee, we seem to have a trend going here.

Well, the reason I've included the song in this list is (1) that genre-bending thing I mentioned at the top, and (b) the way PMJ has completely reworked the lyrics so they are much less offensive (IMO, anyway; I never underestimate the ability of some folks to be offended). You'll have to google the original lyrics yourself to see what I mean.



Single Ladies - Chicago-style

Let's switch gears and exponentially up the sophistication level of this list. Beyoncé sold about a gatrillion copies of this song beginning in 2008, and it's still probably the Beyhive's anthem. Also, AFAIK, no one has sued her over the song. [Original video here]

The lyrics are nothing special, but the real treat in PMJ's arrangement is the choreography, instantly recognizable by anyone even vaguely familiar with Bob Fosse's work. Even the costumes evoke films such as All That Jazz and Chicago.



Shake It Off - Motown-style

Bey's only competition among a certain demographic is Taylor Swift, who released Shake It Off in 2014. It debuted on Billboard's pop chart at #1 (only 21 other songs have done that). It also was the subject of a copyright infringement lawsuit that was dismissed by the court almost as quickly as it was filed. People in the music business apparently love to file lawsuits. [Original video here]

PMJ's treatment puts a classy Motown spin on the tune and lead singer Von Smith, while not exactly pulling off the prototypical Motown look, certainly has the vocal chops to outdo the original artist (sorry, Swiftians, but you know in your heart of hearts that it's true). Make sure you stick around for the break at the 2:36 mark in the following video for proof.



Thriller - 30s Jazz Cover

This is perhaps the most logical, intuitive rework in this list. Lead vocalist Wayne Brady brings the spirit of Cab Calloway to life and it's the most natural thing in the world for Cab to croon the lyrics to Michael Jackson's 1982 classic. [Original video here, as if it's not already playing in your mind]

The genius of this arrangement is the inclusion of the diabolic tap dancers; no Thriller cover is complete without dancing.



Happy - Speakeasy Jazz Cover

Speaking of Pharrell Williams, he does compose non-smutty music, as evidenced by this 2013 song which was included on the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack, much to the chagrin of parents worldwide. [Original video here, if you're a glutton for punishment]

PMJ's version features the phenomenal Gunhild Carling, and not only does she sing and dance, but she plays ten (10!) different instruments on this video...including a trumpet balanced vertically on her lips, and three trumpets played simultaneously and in three-part harmony.



[If you want to see more of the amazing Ms. Carling, check out her PMJ-accompanied cover of Never Gonna Give You Up. Getting Rickrolled has never been more fun.]

Bad Romance - Twenties Gatsby Style

The only unusual thing about this cover is that Lady GaGa didn't do it this way herself. I mean, I could totally see her loving this arrangement, especially in light of her elegant collaborations with Tony Bennett. [Original video here]

It's hard to decide which is better, Ariana Savalas's vocals (and whistling) or the stupidly fast tap-dancing feet of Sarah Reich. But what's up with the disappearing horn section at the end?



Forget You - Thirties Jazz Style

OK, confession time. CeeLo Green's 2010 hit is the only song on this list that's in regular rotation on my iTunes playlist. And, in case you wondered, it's the "clean" version (if you're curious about why I make that distinction, you can look up his Wikipedia entry). [Original -- and clean -- video here]

PMJ's arrangement is classier without losing any of the intensity of Green's incredible vocal range. LaVance Colley matches him falsetto for falsetto. 



We could go on and on. There are literally scores of additional PMJ videos on YouTube. Scott Bradlee appears to be a tireless arranger, and his musical interests range far and wide. Check out his Gershwin/Queen mashup (Bohemian Rhapsody in Blue) or this performance of Peggy Lee's Fever using an even dozen different musical styles.

Newsflash: Local Wildlife Gets Wilder
January 6, 2018 10:37 AM | Posted in:

The local raccoon population has apparently spread the word that my sardine-baited trap is to be ignored. For the past several nights, the bait has gone untouched and the trap unsprung. Photographic evidence of raccoon inspectors makes this all the more frustrating.

That's not to say that the setup hasn't attracted other, more exotic animals. A few nights ago, one of the local foxes actually made its way into the trap and escaped with the bait. To be honest, though, foxes are pretty ordinary compared to some of the other visitors. 

Last night was a great example. Here's what the game camera captured during a brief 10-minute period.







Sadly, I was unable to actually trap any of these creatures, which will likely cause the more skeptical readers to doubt the veracity of these photos. I blame the current Fake News phenomenon for causing otherwise perceptive people to disbelieve concrete visual evidence.

Outfoxed
January 4, 2018 1:55 PM | Posted in: ,

In my role as a wannabe trapper I've grown accustomed to being outsmarted by raccoons, who have frequently escaped with the bait without being captured. However, I'm now being outfoxed by an actual fox.

Here's what happened last night:

Animated gif of fox in trap

I didn't catch footage of the sardine abscondishment, but the tin was missing in another video captured shortly after this one.

We've seen foxes hunting in our neighborhood almost every night (and occasionally during the day), and I've got other videos of them sniffing around the trap, but this is the first time I've seen one enter the trap. This one was a lot more cautious than the animation indicates; the realtime footage was 30 seconds.

So, as if I didn't have enough challenges, I now have to figure out how to keep the bait safe from an animal that's long to grab the sardines without stepping on the trip plate. I do have a glimmer of a possible inkling leading to the beginning of a potential partial solution, but it involves power tools, MIG welders, and sorcery. In other words...this should be fun!

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

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

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

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

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

Photo -
 Ice or Frost Flower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building the Perfect Beast
December 31, 2017 6:57 PM | Posted in: ,

The power of reason, the top of the heap
We're the ones who can kill the things we
Don't eat
...
And now the day is come
Soon he will be released
Glory hallelujah!
We're building the perfect beast
Don Henley [1984]
With apologies to Mr. Henley, who likely didn't anticipate his lyrics would apply to raccoons, this seems to be exactly what I'm doing lately with my trapping efforts. My wife thinks my motto should now be "Making Smarter Raccoons." I wouldn't disagree.

We're in a sort of arms race, the neighborhood raccoons and I. Every time I concoct a strategy to trap them, they create a countermeasure that defeats it. It's simultaneously humbling and -- I confess -- a bit amusing. If this was a TV game show -- say, Are You Smarter Than a Varmint -- I'd be exiting before the first commercial break.

I relearned this lesson earlier this week when I discovered that the sardine-baited trap I'd put out was (1) sprung, (b) empty, and (&*$$%) missing its sardines. It had obviously been rudely treated:

Empty raccoon trap

As you can see, the bungee cord that I used to keep the trap in place didn't accomplish its only assigned task. The entire trap had been shifted by something, and in the process the trapdoor was sprung. The can of sardines that had been placed beneath the trap and on top of the black mat was, of course, gone. (Alert Gazette readers will recall that I had started placing the bait under the trap instead of inside of it, because too many prospective prisoners had figured out how to abscond with it without tripping the trap...more "one-step-ahead hacking.")

I assumed the culprit was of a raccoonish persuasion, and the game camera footage proved my assumption. Shortly after baiting the trap, a raccoon appeared and got to work hacking my system.

Raccoons wear masks for good reason; they're thieves, and quite good at their thievery.

I have to admit some grudging admiration for their cleverness and determination. The following video shows the raccoon trying one approach, and dropping it for another when the first one proved unfruitful. (Note that most of the footage is sped up by 200%...it's only about two minutes long, for those with short attention spans, like me.)



I refused to admit defeat, especially with the reputation of the entire human race riding on my efforts. Darn it, I AM smarter than a large rodent with a walnut-sized brain and goofy tail. 

Since the raccoons had obviously clued into the fact that they could dig under the trap to get the sardines, my own walnut-sized brain came up with the brilliant idea of sinking a fence into the ground around the cage. I did that, and reset the trap. The following morning, the results were the same: no raccoon; no sardines; no human superiority.

Back to the drawing board. This is what I came up with:

Photo of my raccoon trap mods
Some people modify cars, some modify guns. Me? I'm into trap mods.

I was particularly proud of what I term the "trip plate guard." The raccoons have been successfully reaching into the trap from the outside and hitting the plate that causes the door to slam shut, thus preventing them from, you know, actually coming into the trap. Now, feel free to debate whether they are doing this on purpose or accidentally, but keep in mind that they're evil little thieves with larceny in their hearts. [Ed. -- Anthropomorphize much?]

My countermeasure is simple: I bent some screen mesh into a sort of shield and wired it in place so that a raccoon's reach couldn't get to the trip plate. Note that the shield couldn't just be a patch wired tight against the cage, as that would interfere with the trap's mechanism. Note to Havahart®: I'm happy to license this design improvement for a modest fee, say, sardines for life...?

I also abandoned the idea of placing the bait under the trap as the raccoons have definitely learned to dig underneath it to get to them. I'll take my chances with them trying to grab the sardines inside the cage without tripping the trap.

Finally, I slid a 4' length of rebar through the bars near the entrance to the trap as a way of further stabilizing it. On at least one occasion, the trap had been sprung by a particularly aggressive jostling, and I hoped this would eliminate that possibility. (I could put a second bungee cord at the front of the trap, but the rebar was a quick-and-dirty fix.)

So, did my awesome trap mods pay off, or did I simply extend the hours of the Fire Ant Raccoon Evening Buffet? Here's the video answer, showing the previous night's failure followed by last night's...well, you'll have to watch it to find out.
For now, advantage: humans. We'll see how long that lasts.

By the way, I did realize last night that the description of the trap as a "humane raccoon trap" is indeed appropriate for one reason I hadn't thought about. The design ensures that the trapped animal is protected from rain and snow by providing a solid roof and wall at one end of the trap. The raccoon I released this morning was extremely annoyed, but at least it wasn't soaked by the overnight drizzle.