Random Thursday: The Weekend Edition
May 8, 2021 8:00 PM | Posted in:

Look what I found in my Office Drawer of Miscellaneous Stuff:

Photo - Mattel Electronics handheld football game from 1977
State-of-the-art gaming equipment circa 1977

More than four decades ago, this electronic football game was a huge win for Mattel, at one point selling more than 500,000 units per week. The little red blips on the screen represent the ball carrier (the brightest light) and the defenders (there were five; one of them has apparently gone to the locker room, possibly with an injury, in this photo). According to the Mattel section of the Handheld Museum (you knew there would be one, right?), the blips or dashes of light are actually the top section of the number 8 on a calculator; the game ran on a modified Rockwell calculator chip.

I put a 9-volt battery into this unit and it fired right up and worked flawlessly, which isn't saying much, but the game is still oddly addictive...a comfortable throwback to a simpler time.

Incidentally, you can re-create the experience for only $139.86 via a rebooted/updated "replica" sold by Amazon.

On a related note, Debbie and I still have one of the original Pong consoles -- and the original box -- sold by Sears beginning in 1975. I'm sure it works, but it would be a challenge to find an adapter to make it compatible with a modern TV.

The whitetail deer bucks around here start shedding their antlers annually after the first of the year...and that's when Debbie starts her search for those discards. It's a race against time, to be honest, because there are a bunch of local critters who dine on antlers. Squirrels and porcupines gnaw on them to wear down their continuously growing teeth, and, along with possums and raccoons, obtain nutrients (including iron, potassium, zinc, and calcium) in the bone that comprises the antler. We've seen entire antlers disappear from our back yard in a few months thanks to the voracious varmints.

She's rarely successful in her searches because we don't actually get out and beat the bushes. But serendipity occasional rears its pretty little head, and it did so a few months ago. She found a beautiful four-point antler and we've been guarding it carefully until we could decide what to do with it.

A week or so ago, I had a brainstorm for an antler centric DIY project. Here's the quite impressive result:

Photo - Deer antler hat rack that I built all by myself

 Everyone needs a hatrack in their garage, right? But I gotta tell you, working with bone is not an easy task, as I learned the hard way.

My plan was to (1) grind a flat spot on the burr (which is where the antler more or less attaches to the deer's skull), then (2) drill a hole and sink a threaded insert into which (3) a bolt would be affixed through a hole in the side of a cabinet, thereby firmly and seamlessly fastening the antler to the exterior of the cabinet. Sounds pretty simple.

The problem is that bones are like rocks in the body* and they're just as hard to cut or drill as rocks (if you've ever watched Forged In Fire, you probably know that the bone chop is one of the most feared tests of durability of a knife). I quickly learned that I could not cut threads into the hole that I drilled (and it took four bits of increasingly large diameter to get the right sized hole). There may be a tap in existence that will thread a rock (or a bone), but I certainly don't have it in my tool kit. I ended up just pounding the threaded insert into the hole and hoping the fit would be strong enough to support the weight of a few caps. So far, it has, so that's a win in my book.

If any of you DIYers who are more skilled than me -- that would be you, whoever you are -- care to advise me on how this project might go more smoothly next time, feel free to enlighten me via a comment.

I'm going to close today with some thoughts about snakes, and more specifically, about snakes and their effects on some folks. And perhaps there's a larger lesson to be learned. [Disclosure: There are no photos associated with this bit of rambling.]

There is a woman who I consider to be a friend, even though I've never met her. Our virtual relationship goes back to the golden days of blogging. She's a wife, mom, PhD educator, and author of multiple novels, as well as a sister in Christ. I have a great deal of respect for her. She also has a significant aversion to snakes.

For a long time, whenever I'd post something about a serpentine encounter, she'd chide me...especially if I included a photo or two. I always assumed her comments were [at least] half-joking and didn't take them too seriously, although I did start to post a warning on social media if I included pictures of snakes and I knew she might read those posts. This practice, again, was something of a wink-and-a-nod bit of levity on my part...a tongue-in-cheek trigger warning, if you will.

However, a few weeks ago, I saw her post something that made me realize that I had been much too cavalier toward her feelings. She essentially shared that she had a deep-seated fear of and aversion to snakes, and that the simple sight of a photo could trigger something akin to PTSD. I then realized that this was not a joke, and that I had been oblivious to a real issue.

There might have been a time in my life where my reaction would be "well, that's her problem, not mine." (I hope I've never been that insensitive, but I'm sure I've been that clueless.) Thank God, I've gained a bit of maturity over the years [quit laughing; I'm sure that's the case. Well, sort of sure.] and I now know that just because I can't quite understand or relate to someone else's feelings or perceptions, those things are no less real than my own. (For the record, I share a similar -- albeit a somewhat less intense -- reaction to spiders.)

So, if in the future you see me post a warning about the inclusion of photos of snakes in one of my articles, think of it as a sort of public service announcement, and know that I am more concerned about the feelings of my friend than I am about adding a few more words. 

I think we each have our own issues that seem trivial or silly to others but which are very real and impactful to our own well-being. I'm pretty sure our world would be a better place to live if we sought to understand and sympathize with one another in that respect. 

I'm not suggesting that we do that if it undermines or conflicts with our genuine moral or ethical underpinnings, but to borrow a quote that's been attributed to multiple people through the ages, we should strive for "unity in the essential, charity in the non-essential, and in all things, love."
My Oura ring provided me with the following bit of information this morning:

Screen capture of an Oura ring information screen


Of course, my biggest creative challenge on any given day is deciding which white socks to wear, so I wasn't sure what to do with this advice. Then it came to me, sudden-like: "it's Thursday. I should craft a Random Thursday post!"

It's been awhile since I wrote any kind of Random Thursday article (Ed. -- Eleven months, twenty-two days, to be exact), much less one on an actual Thursday. (Ed. -- One year, five months, sixteen days, to be exact) [My editor has apparently discovered the Date Duration Calculator, much to my continuing chagrin.] But it's a dreary, rainy day here in the Bay of Horseshoes, so...why the heck not?

Last Wednesday was Aggie Muster, an annual event where former students of the Best University in the, uh, Universe gather to honor our classmates who passed on in the previous year. It's a pretty solemn occasion, and it was good to be able to do it in person instead of virtually as we had to do last year. 

I did something that I had never thought about doing before: I wore my dad's class ring in his memory, alongside mine.

Photo - My Texas A&M class ring next to my dad's

Dad graduated in 1949, 26 years before me. [OK, nice try. You did the math, didn't you, and you think you caught me in either a lie or some Aggie ciphering. Normally, you'd be right, but in this case, the photo is misleading. I actually graduated in 1975, because I loved the heat and humidity of College Station sooooo much. And also because organic chemistry prompted me to change majors. But that's another story for another day.]

As you might guess, Dad wore his Aggie ring continuously until the day he died. In fact, he wore it on the same finger as his wedding ring; the class ring was almost worn through on the bottom from friction with the other band. You might also guess that I don't wear mine nearly as often. It's not a case of not being proud of it...I almost always wear it in public...it's just too big for me to wear comfortably around the house and while working.

Anyway, I felt like it was a pretty good way to honor Dad while attending a ceremony to honors others.

Despite the appropriation of their name for this blog, I have no affection for fire ants. As far as I can tell, their only redeeming quality is that they are said to eat chiggers, and that doesn't come close to offsetting their disturbing tendencies to destroy pretty much everything else they come in contact with.

Photo - Ninja with a blowgun
Ninja with a blowgun...the fire ant's worst nightmare
So it was with some interest that I ran across this article on the Entomology Today website that claims that compounds found on the skin of so-called poison dart frogs might be used to control (a euphemism for "destroy," one would hope) fire ants.

Unfortunately, I also noticed that the article was dated 2014, and seven years later, there has been no massive frog skin induced fire ant eradication.

My guess is that once researchers tried to bring this approach into the field, they quickly found that aiming those tiny arrows was just too hard.

I crack myself up, sometimes.

We've recently returned from an enjoyable visit with our friends who live on South Padre Island. There's a lot I could report on, but I'm going to focus on a couple of things.

First, the beach on the Gulf of Mexico side of the island was littered with thousands -- if not hundreds of thousands -- of tiny stranded jellyfish-looking organisms. We thought at first that they were juvenile Portuguese man-of-war (men-of-war?) owing to their coloration and little dorsal sail, but closer inspection revealed that they had none of the strings of tentacles that make that species so gosh-darned nasty.

Debbie did some googling and discovered that they are actually Velella, a hydrozoan (meaning that they are in the same scientific classification as the creatures we call jellyfish; and they are indeed a semi-close relative of the much larger Portuguese MOWs) that also goes by the name of sea raft, purple sail, or by-the-wind sailor (which seems a bit redundant, but which is an actual nautical term). As you can see, the common names are quite appropriate:

Photo of two Velella on the beach at South Padre Island

They're really quite pretty when the light catches them at just the right angle, but it's a bit sad to contemplate the multitudes of the little creatures that died because they were washed ashore by the waves and the wind.

[Am I alone in seeing an odd resemblance to some of the glass insulators I wrote about here?]

We also visited a sand sculpture exhibit while on the Island, and while I went in with somewhat lowered expectations, I came out quite impressed with the skill and creativity of the multiple artists whose work was on display. It's something I readily recommend to visitors to SPI; it's even free, although donations are gladly accepted.

I took a couple of photos, of course.

Every Texan should relate to the following photo. Incidentally, and apropos of absolutely nothing, when I tweeted this photo and it got retweeted by a Texas-centric account, Traces of Texas, it got almost 13,000 views, not that I'm counting or fixated on stuff like this or anything. (But a comment I left on one of Beth Moore's tweets has over 25,000 views, not that I'm counting or fixated on stuff like this or anything.)

Photo of a heart-shaped sand sculpture reading 'You had me at Whataburger'

The next photo deserves a bigger viewing area. Check out the details on this sculpture and see how many references to the madness that was 2020 you can spot.

Photo of a sand sculpture depicting the transition from 2020 to 2021

In closing, now that the Great Caterpillar Invasion of 2021 has mostly ended, I feel non-traumatized enough to share a close-up of an inchworm (aka canker worm...such a disgusting appellation), in the hope that it might convince you (and myself, to be honest) to find a trace of beauty in an otherwise annoying-if-not-completely-overlooked being.

Photo - Close-up of an inchworm

By the way, those two pairs of "legs" shown in the close-up are not true legs...they're more like sticky pads and they're called "prolegs." The true legs are up front (and slightly out of focus in this picture thanks to my mad photography skilz.) Don't never say we don't indulge in education-like material in these here parts.

My Dad's Collection: Glass Insulators
April 18, 2021 8:49 PM | Posted in: ,

Warning (Nerd Alert): This post careens pretty far into the weeds on a rather obscure topic. Perhaps its saving grace is some pretty pictures.

My dad was a dedicated collector of...everything. He had copious quantities of stamps (we're talking thousands) and coins (a hernia-inducing amount, to be exact). He, along with my mom, "invested" in enough Norman Rockwell commemorative plates to equip a state dinner at the White House. I recently found a stash of date nails (which I never realized was a thing) in one of his storage rooms.

I've [re]discovered all of these things and more while cleaning up the old homestead in preparation for selling it. The value is mostly sentimental -- although the coins are at least worth their face value -- but there's one collection that might actually be more valuable than I first though: glass insulators.
If you're new to the world of glass insulators, here's a quick primer. Shortly after the invention of the telegraph and telephone, in the mid-19th century, insulators were developed to serve two purposes. One was to provide a method of attaching the transmission lines to poles, and the other was to prevent the loss of the electrical current that carried the actual transmission, hence the term "insulator." Some of these devices were made of porcelain, but glass turned out to be less expensive and for 50 years or so, beginning in the late 19th century, glass insulators were manufactured by the hundreds of millions. Nowadays, while insulators are still used -- primarily on high voltage electric transmission lines -- they're generally made from ceramic or polymer materials. [Source]
I have no idea where Dad acquired them, but he had lined up almost 200 insulators along the rafters of their carport, and they had remained there for decades, collecting dust and the occasional spider or wasp nest. They looked unimpressive, but some quick research revealed that if cleaned, they might be attractive to other collectors, or perhaps antique dealers or similar resellers.

So, I climbed a ladder and carefully boxed them up (a typical glass insulator weighs more than a pound so the four small moving boxes were over fifty pounds each) and stacked them in the bed of our truck for transporting 300 miles back to our house.

I then set up an assembly line of sorts to clean them. I'm sure you won't be surprised to learn that there is a vast number of resources devoted to glass insulators, and this one provided the clearest options for safely cleaning them. I chose the acid method, and found some oxalic acid -- sold as "wood bleach" at a local hardware store. I diluted a gallon of the acid with three gallons of water in a plastic five gallon Home Depot bucket. This was to be the method of removing decades of haze from the glass...or so I hoped.

But before dropping insulators into the acid, I used a garden hose to remove as much dust, dirt, and evidence of insect habitation as possible. Someone -- my Dad or the previous owner -- had numbered some of the insulators using plastic embossed label tape, and I had to use a knife to scrape those labels off. Once this preliminary step was complete, I carefully dropped about 20 of the insulators into the acid solution and let them soak for 24 hours.

At the end of that time, I transferred them to another five gallon bucket filled with clean water to rinse the insulators. I then fished them out one at a time and carefully dried each one with a microfiber towel. Insulators have a fair amount of nooks and crannies so this was a somewhat tedious process. However, the results were, in my opinion, stunning. I didn't take any "before" photos, but here are some "after" photos. [If you pretend you have serious cataracts in both eyes, that should allow you to visualize (or not) the unclean specimens.]

Photo - Glass insulators in storage bin
This is just a portion of the total number of insulators in the collection.

Photo - Green glass insulator
Hemingway was the most prolific manufacturer of glass insulators.
It ceased operations back in the 1970s

Photo - Green glass insulator
Some of the insulators were of a smaller variety. The internal threads identify
these insulators as "pintype" or "pin" insulators. They were screwed onto
metal or wooden inserts to hold them in place on poles (see below).

Photo - Part of a wooden pin to which an insulator was affixed
One of the insulators was still screwed onto this wooden pin,
broken off the cross arm of a telephone pole.

Photo - Blue glass insulator
The blue color was unique; only one such example was in the collection.

Photo - Two glass insulators, one pale green and one smoky clear color
The internal rings are referred to as "petticoats" or "skirts." Those "bumps"
around the base of the insulator on the left are called "drip points,"
and they are designed to draw moisture away from the insulator.

Photo - A brown-colored porcelain insulator
This is the sole example of a porcelain insulator in Dad's collection. 
According to an expert that I consulted, this is "probably" 
a U-52 style insulator, worth perhaps $10.

I find this all very interesting from a historical perspective, but also because I never realized that the population of glass (and porcelain) collectors were so well organized. Indeed, the National Insulator Association is a 501(c)(3) "educational and scientific organization" with more than 1,700 members, mostly across North America.

There are also multiple price guides of varying quality designed to help you determine the value of an insulator. I purchased one such guide which can be accompanied (for an additional fee) by an online browser-based graphical user interface to make it easier to locate a specific design. The challenge is that there are literally thousands of variations to sort through -- the price guide lists almost 80 different colors, for example -- and it will take a keener eye than mine to definitively identify any given model. 

Below is an excerpt from the above-referenced price guide showing the description of a single model of insulator.

Excerpt from insulator price guide
Feel free to enlighten me as to how to distinguish among the three
listed shades of cornflower blue or the four shades of aqua. I've obscured
the prices to protect the investment of the publisher of the guide.)

What's the bottom line for all of this time and effort? Well, aside from learning more than I ever thought I wanted to know about glass insulators, I hope to find a buyer (knowledgeable or otherwise; the latter might even be preferable if they have cash to burn!), and monetize the collection on behalf of my mom. I suspect that good quality, clean insulators probably retail for an average of $10 apiece in antique stores; creative hobbyists might also be willing to pony up at that level. (This also assumes that there are no really rare, really valuable collector-worthy specimens in the group, and I'm not sure I'll go to the effort of trying to find out.) I would be happy clearing 50% of that average. So, if you know of anyone who might be interested, feel free to send 'em this way!

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of two caterpillars of different species

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

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

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

Comic strip showing caterpillars to actually be alien chest-bursters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, about that loquat tree...

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo - Loquat root ball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graphic - Fake MPAA film rating

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

Photo - Cedar waxwing perched on my finger

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

Photo - Cedar waxwing perched atop our back fence

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

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

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

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

Cedar waxwings are pretty little birds, and northern mockingbirds are the state bird of Texas. There's no real winner when the two species collide, but the former will almost surely always be the big loser. Sometimes, Nature needs someone to step in and even the odds. 

Back Row Grace
March 5, 2021 9:29 AM | Posted in: ,

I'm sure you're all familiar with the Biblical parable of the back-row concert goers.

No? Hmmm...I could've sworn strongly posited that was in the Bible. Oh, wait. Maybe I'm thinking of this:

Now He began telling a parable to the invited guests when He noticed how they had been picking out the places of honor at the table, saying to them, "Whenever you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for someone more distinguished than you may have been invited by him, and the one who invited you both will come and say to you, 'Give your place to this person,' and then in disgrace you will proceed to occupy the last place. But whenever you are invited, go and take the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he will say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will have honor in the sight of all who are dining at the table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted."
  -- Luke 14:7-11 (NASB)

So, if you substitute "bought tickets to" for "invited by," and "an Everly Brothers tribute concert" for "wedding feast," and "assigned seat" for "place," and "listening" for "dining," and "in the concert hall" for "at the table," then you'd have a[n almost] perfect description of what happened to Debbie and me last Sunday night. Here are the deets.

We did indeed attend a show entitled The Everly Brothers Experience, sponsored by the Horseshoe Bay Cultural Enrichment Society. We didn't have any preconceived notions about the entertainment value of this program, because we didn't know that much about the Everly Brothers. While their musical career stretched for decades, their prime was in the late 50s/early 60s, and we were more children of the pop/rock era beginning in the mid-60s.

As it turned out, the performance was incredibly entertaining (and even educational, from a musical history perspective). The performers, Zachary and Dylan Zmed, along with their drummer, Burleigh Drummond, are truly gifted musicians whose tribute to Don and Phil Everly is flawless. Their stage act is also hilarious, in a Smothers Brothers (link provided for you whippersnapper who are too young to recall these cultural icons) sort of way, and their knowledge of the musical history of that era provided some fascinating details. If you ever get a chance to see this show, we recommend without hesitation doing so.

This YouTube video will give you a taste of their talents.

I snapped a couple of photos with my phone. The weird lighting was because of the...well...weird lighting. But note the picture on the right. This was my first concert where the drummer mounted a coke* bottle on a cymbal stand and played it with a metal spike. According to Zachary Zmed, this was really the way the record was cut (but forgive me as I can't remember the song. Let's just assume it's called The Coke Bottle Song.).

Photo collage of the Zmed Brothers and the drummer playing a coke bottle

I'm sure that you're now thinking, that's all well and good, but what does that have to do with one of Jesus' parables? OK, let me 'splain.

Because of this COVID thing -- perhaps you've heard of it -- seating at the show was spaced out and seats were assigned according to some unknowable algorithm. When we arrived, we were directed to seats on the last row of a room that was sort of like a big hallway down from the main concert area. It's not a huge building, so they weren't exactly nosebleed seats, and we were sure the sound system would be adequate, but it wasn't exactly going to be an intimate performance.

But, a few minutes before the performance began, a gentleman approached us and said something to the effect that there are a couple of center stage, front row, and you have been chosen to occupy them if you would like. I considered the implications of this offer for, oh, a nanosecond or two before proffering an enthusiastic acceptance. 

We followed the man -- who turned out to be the president of the Cultural Enrichment group -- to the front of the room where two chairs were set, each containing a three-inch-thick cushion embroidered with the name of the previous president. Those seats were reserved for him and his wife but they were unable to attend that evening and we were the beneficiaries of their absences.

I'd be lying if I said we didn't feel a bit self-conscious about this unexpected elevation in seating status. I'd also be lying if I said we didn't absolutely enjoy the unimpeded view of the program. To quote that eminent philosopher, Mel Brooks, "it's good to be the king!"

I'm pretty sure that Jesus had something else in mind with His parable, but for a brief moment, we felt like the humble-but-honored guest at the wedding. 

*This is Texas and we don't employ meaningless, and, frankly, wimpy terms like "soda" or "pop." They're all cokes, even if they're not Cokes.
Howdy, buckaroos. We just received the cancellation of the boil water notice that we've been living under for the last eight years* so I'm giddy and in the mood to engage in some mindless activity...like blogging.

I don't know if you heard, but Texas traded places with Antarctica for a week, and then Hell took over. But, things are looking up, at least for us here at Casa Fire Ant. We went from 3º on February 16 to 73º yesterday, so our reputation for science fiction-level weather remains intact.

In the midst of the misery, there were some bright spots, and I learned a few things. For instance, did you know that mockingbirds and robins  don't get along? For a couple of days, I watched with great amusement as each of them tried to stake a claim on the big yaupon in our back yard, laden with delicious (to a bird) berries. The first time I noticed their jousting, the robin chased the mockingbird away. But thereafter, the mockingbird, having apparently gotten a pep talk from his buds, bullied the robin. I've known for a long time that mockingbirds are pugnacious avians, having had to wear a motorcycle helmet in order to mow the grass around a tree containing one of their nests, but I had no idea their hostility extended to other birds.

Photo - Robin in yaupon
Above: The robin enjoying a rare moment of peace
Below: The mockingbird enjoying the fruit of his victory
Photo - Mockingbird in yaupon, with a berry in its mouth

We'll talk more about birds in a moment, but I think it's extremely important that you take a moment to contemplate the sheer genius of a website that allows you to draw an iceberg and then view a simulation for how it will float. Just imagine how different things might have been for the Titanic had the crew been able to access this technology. OK, probably not much different. But the point is...it's really fun to play with. And in observance of Texas temporarily becoming a...well, you know...here's what it would do if totally immersed in water (insert your own broken water line joke here at such time as it's not too painful):

Drawing - A Texas-shaped iceberg

And speaking of being frozen, here's a cardinal (the bird, not the cleric) in an icy loquat tree (which, by the way, is likely dead...it just doesn't yet realize it. I'm referring to the tree, not the bird, and certainly not the cleric.).

Photo - Cardinal perched in an icy loquat tree

Speaking of things that may (or may not) be dead, there's quite a bit of chatter going around about a claim that a thylacine has been spotted in Australia or Tasmania or one of those places where the toilets flush in the wrong direction. I'm sure I don't have to explain the implications of finding that an apex predator -- the largest carnivorous marsupial known to science but thought to be extinct for almost a hundred years -- is still kicking. Yes, that's right. If the Tasmanian tiger/wolf/what-have-you is real, then confirmation of the existence of the chupacabra cannot be far behind.

[In all seriousness, the discovery that a species previously thought extinct is still alive would be a Very Cool Thing. Let's hope it's true.]

In closing, let me leave you with a visual recipe for the most delectable dessert you'll likely ever encounter that can be made in a matter of mere seconds.

Animation showing how to mix delicious rice pudding with even more delicious coconut cream to make the most delicious dessert

*This might be an exaggeration, but there's no way to know for sure since our clocks AND calendars froze.

Golf Courses Are Wasted On Golfers
February 1, 2021 9:43 AM | Posted in: ,

Disclaimer: The following contains what might appear to be disparaging and/or disrespectful observations regarding that peculiar breed of humanity known collectively as "golfers." In truth, no disrespect is intended; some of my best friends and many of my beloved relatives (two of whom are PGA Tour winners) are golfers. Nevertheless, even they will admit that there's something in their brains' wiring that just isn't natural. But who am I to judge? After all, while they're searching for missing golf balls, I'm in the same vicinity searching for snakes.

I don't recall why, after six years of living here, we suddenly decided to try running on the local golf courses. But I do know precisely when it happened.

Photo - Selfie of me on the Ram Rock golf course after a run
Why am I smiling? Well, I finished a run and didn't die. Always a good thing.
It was the morning of November 23, 2020 -- a Monday -- and Debbie and I were running up Bay West Boulevard, as we had done hundreds of times before. But this time, as we neared the intersection with Broken Hills, instead of continuing on another mile or so to the Cap Rock clubhouse, or making a u-turn and heading back home, I suggested going right on Broken Hills, and then making another right onto the cart path leading to Ram Rock #7. And, as they say, the rest is history.

OK, let's back up. Unless you live in Horseshoe Bay (or visit here often), you have no idea what I'm talking about, so let me provide some context.

Our house is strategically located so that within a half mile radius, ATBF, there are four private 18-hole golf courses (see the locator map below). We can actually use the cart paths of three of them: the aforementioned Ram Rock, its close (and easier, by all accounts) Apple Rock, and the spectacular Summit Rock. (Escondido is the exception, as guards will chase off anyone without a chip embedded in their neck. OK, I jest...probably. They're trying to live up to their name, but the joke's on them; we all know where it is.)

Locator map showing golf courses more or less adjacent to our house
Our house is located in the center of the half-mile radius circle.

Our house is ~150' from the cart path on Ram #11 (that's how all the golfers I know refer to locations on the courses; some of them with homes adjacent to the courses don't even know their own street addresses...they simply say, "oh, we're on Apple #4" and if you get a blank look on your face, they know that you're not One Of Them and not to be trusted. OK, I jest...probably.). From that point, there are a multitude of running route options that vary significantly in terms of distance and elevation change. 

Photo - Our house as viewed from the Ram Rock golf course
This is a view of the side of our house as seen from the Ram Rock #11 fairway.
The perspective is deceiving; there's actually a vacant lot between our house
and the fence marking the boundary of our neighborhood.

For example, turning left on that path takes you up the front half of Ram Rock for 1.5 miles, with an increase in elevation of about 100'/mile. That's nothing if you live in Colorado or the Himalayas, but if you grew up in the flatlands of West Texas, it's a brutal eye-opener.

Photo - View of creek and Bay West bridge near the Ram Rock #11 tee box
The aforementioned left turn starts out deceptively flat, and very pretty.
This is the creek that flows under the bridge on Bay West Blvd.

But turning right takes you on a relatively flat 4-mile out-and-back course that winds past four Ram Rock holes and continues onto the Apple Rock cart path for five additional holes; the midway point is a turnaround that looks out over Lake LBJ.

Photo - A view of a portion of the Ram Rock #11 fairway and green
Making that right turn takes you along a wooded neighborhood with multiple creek
crossings. This is a view of part of the Ram Rock #11 fairway and green.
And speaking of green...they put colorant on the fairways in the winter.

Photo - A view of the Ram Rock #14 fairway
There's a spot on this route where you can see the fairways of three holes:
Ram Rock #s 13, 14, and 15.

Photo - A view of Lake LBJ from the Apple Rock 12 tee box
This is one of the views of Lake LBJ from the Apple Rock #12 tee box,
access to which entails crossing two short bridges over lake inlets.

Photo - One of the two crossings of Pecan Creek on Apple Rock #16
The return trip from Apple Rock #12 takes us over not one, but two crossings of the
winding Pecan Creek. This is the fairway on Apple Rock #16.

Summit Rock is a bit of an exception, as we can access it only by running on streets for a mile (and by crossing the main east-west highway that splits Horseshoe Bay), but once there, the route is a bit less developed than the more established Ram and Apple courses. Parts of the Summit Rock cart path are staggeringly steep, and although the views of Lake LBJ plus another twenty miles of the Texas Hill Country are unequaled, running them is a masochistic endeavor (so we don't). Instead, we wind through some very pretty neighborhoods where traffic is essentially non-existent. Either we're too early for the residents, or nobody actually lives in those million-dollar-plus homes.

Photo - The wooden bridge over Pecan Creek between Summit Rock #14 & #15
Above: The wooden bridge spanning Pecan Creek and
leading to the Summit Rock #14 fairway.

Below: A view of Pecan Creek (which eventually flows just behind our house) 
from the Summit Rock bridge.
Photo - A view of Pecan Creek between from the Summit Rock bridge

One significant benefit of where our house is located is that the closest access point of each of these three golf courses is past the midpoint of an 18-hole round. So, we don't have to hit the trails at the crack of dawn to avoid golfers. By the time they make it to anything past #12, we're already home eating bacon and eggs and biscuits. (Don't judge us. Why do you think we run, anyway?)

Besides avoiding traffic on the streets -- which, granted, is never all that heavy, but still... -- we've gotten to know the other regulars who are out early walking their dogs or just walking for exercise (we seem to be the only runners). Of course, when I say "know," I don't really mean KNOW as in "we know their names." We've just seen each other enough now to merit friendly smiles and waves, and in the infrequent times Debbie or I run solo, some of them remark on that fact that our partner is missing. That's pretty cool, I think.

We've also enjoyed seeing the backs of houses that we've seen from the fronts for years. Some houses look fairly mundane in the front, but have spectacular living areas in the back overlooking the golf courses. We also get to experience up close some features of nature -- like the creek crossings mentioned above -- that are otherwise inaccessible from the street. Oh, and did I mention that there are restrooms -- with heat and a/c -- about every mile or so?

Not everything about running on the cart paths is perfect. The concrete can be hard on one's feet and joints (I'm not sure it's much worse than the asphalt of the street, but my wife disagrees). Running on the grass can mitigate that but that has its own challenges. We also often have to dodge the course maintenance crews that tend to the greens and sand traps every morning. They're pretty good about yielding the right of way, but there are spots where it's tough for them to get off the path in order to let us by. We try not to impose on their work responsibilities.

The real attraction of the cart paths is the scenery. Views like the ones I've shared today make us feel a continual sense of blessing that we get to live in surroundings like these, and that we're healthy enough to get out and enjoy them.

Photo - Looking down the 10th fairway of Apple Rock, with Lake LBJ as a backdrop
This is the 10th fairway of Apple Rock. It is NOT on our regular route.
If you could see it in person, you'd know why. It's far steeper than it looks.
Even the view of Lake LBJ doesn't motivate us to run there.

Photo - A view of the Ram Rock #16 fairway on a frosty morning
Sunrise over the Ram Rock #16 fairway on a frosty January morning.
Alert Gazette readers will no doubt remember the pair of Egyptian geese that resided last year on the golf course nearest our house. They left for parts unknown after their lone progeny reached maturity, and we wondered if we would see them again. Based on my cursory research, they're not migratory so they'll keep to a specific vicinity as long as there's a sufficient source of water. Our local golf courses provide a consistent supply of water, so perhaps they simply moved to another spot on the course where we couldn't see them from the street.

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

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

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

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

Photo - Nine Egyptian goose eggs on the ground

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

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

Photo - Goose atop the clutch of eggs

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

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

Photo - Scattered and broken goose eggs

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

Photo - Broken bits of goose eggshell

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

Photo - The pair of geese near the destroyed nest

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

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

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