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?
Photo - Grape popsicle floating in a glass of white wine
Don't try this at home...or anywhere, actually.
Happy Thursday! Today, as you well know, is National Grape Popsicle Day. There are many fine ways to celebrate the day, one of which is to use a grape popsicle to keep your drink cold, as long as it's not chardonnay.

Today, for your reading pleasure, we shall look in on the hawk nestling, explore the wonders of electric lawn mowers, and explain why you should never bring a Canadian to a gunfight. Let's get right to it, shall we?

Last week, in the kind of dramatic reveal that the Gazette is known for, we shared the first photos of the red-shouldered hawk nestling that's growing up down the street from us. I'm happy to report that the little guy/gal appears to be doing well. Here are some more recent photos captured by the drone hovering at around 5' above the nest.

Photo - Snowy white hawk nestling
Are you looking at me? I said, are you looking at me?!

Photo - Snowy white hawk nestling
Baby hawks aren't really all that cute at this point in their lives.

Photo - Snowy white hawk nestling
It does appear to be growing quickly though. Lizards are good protein sources (I guess).

I bought an electric lawn mower last week. I don't actually need a lawn mower, regardless of power source; we have a lawn service that comes once a week, unless they don't. But they don't mow behind the house, close to the creek, and I like to keep that area tidy. It dissuades snakes from visiting, plus it just looks better.

Anyway, I bought one of these:

Photo - EGO battery-powered lawn mower

It's one of those fancy-schmancy battery powered mowers manufactured by EGO (the green "E" distinguishes it from the otherwise unflattering (if accurate) reference to its owner. This thing is loaded with everything except a hemi. It's got a three-speed self-propelling function, double blades plus interchangeable secondary blades for different cutting parameters (you wouldn't use a paring knife to do a chef's knife work, so why use a regular blade when a mulching blade is called for?), and one-touch height adjustment. It's even got LED headlights in case I want to deal with insomnia by doing yard work. It's also powered by a lithium battery that sort of resembles Iron Man's Arc reactor.

Would you call this the Tesla of lawn mowers? Well, I wouldn't, but I also wouldn't argue with you if you wanted to. (I'm pretty sure it doesn't have over-the-air operating system updates...yet.)

This certainly isn't your dad's electric lawn mower. OK, I don't know your dad; maybe it is his lawn mower...but it's definitely not the one that my dad taught me to use lo those many decades ago.
Photo: Vintage corded electric lawn mower
This is your dad's electric lawn mower.
The first lawn mower I ever used was electric, with a long extension cord trailing behind it. I was always terrified of shredding that cord and lighting myself up. It was relatively quiet, definitely underpowered, heavier than you might expect, but basically maintenance free.

I hadn't thought about corded electric lawn mowers in forever, so I was surprised to see that there is still a whole slew of them to choose from. I did a quick search on Lowe's website, and they sell about a dozen different models. You wouldn't want to try to mow the lower forty with one, but I'm sure they're more than adequate for a small long as you don't electrocute yourself.

Anyway, I'm pretty happy with the new and improved take on the electric mower. It's got plenty of power -- electric motors are known for their torque capabilities (by way of a factual if meaningless comparison, this mower has more than twice the torque per pound of weight than my wife's Lexus SUV) -- and it folds flat and stores on its end. After all, there's nothing to leak (even though my pal Tommy warned me about the possibility of all the electricity leaking out). And it is quiet enough to use at night without disturbing the neighbors of human persuasion; I suspect the skunks and raccoons might feel differently but I really don't intend to ever find out.

In closing, I offer the following via Twitter. Now, I don't know any actual Canadians -- I mean, there is Céline Dion, but we're not close -- but by all accounts they're a quite friendly and polite species.

At the same time, I suspect that the Canadian military is as bad*** as any country's (after all, they have guys like Deadpool, John Wick, and Captain Kirk as invincible inspiration), so when someone in an apparently official capacity purports to represent them with such a ridiculous image as the one shown below, it's easy to understand why their collective reaction is somewhat more than "that's not really right, eh."

Not everyone here is going to recognize the significant faux pas in this photo (there are more than one, but you have to be Canadian to see them all), so I'll give you a clue: those aren't real shooting bullets in the bandolier...they're blanks. This might be appropriate for another Canadian (such as Justin Bieber or Tommy Chong), but certainly not for actual soldiers doing soldierly things like trying to decimate the enemy.

To its credit, the Canadian Armed Forces twitter account took full blame for the mistake, and did so in a humorous manner. 

Incidentally, the reference to "Bruce" in the CAF's response is explained here (and, once again, Ryan Reynolds makes an appearance).
Happy Thursday! Today is National Be A Millionaire Day, which means that most of you should ask your servants to read this post to you so you can save your eyesight for more important things, like counting your caviar or arranging your polo mallets by head weight.

Got a couple of albums I need to tell you about, as I seem to have them on repeat lately. Check out Brent Cobb's Keep 'Em On They Toes, and the recently released and much hyped (and definitely worthy of that hype) The Marfa Tapes by Texas musicians Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, and Jon Randall. They're both ostensibly country in genre, but they also avoid the over-produced, over-testosteroned bro-country model that seems to permeate "mainstream" country music nowadays. 

The front page of yesterday's edition of the Wall Street Journal had a story about how people are not recognizing one another now that masks are coming off. The phenomenon is the reverse of what you might have experienced at the beginning of the pandemic: we didn't recognize folks because they were wearing masks. (Or, even better, we could use that as an excuse. "Oh, sorry...I didn't recognize you with your mask on. Don't you just hate these things?" This line of conversation provided a convenient diversion from the fact that you had forgotten the other person's name. Or so I've heard.)

But I don't want to dwell on the surprising-face-revelation aspect of the story. Instead, I draw your attention to the following excerpt* from the article:

Text of article referencing 'whoa, whoa!'

The underlined text in the last sentence is a link that leads to a 2019 article which reports on the pressing issue of how the exclamation whoa is properly spelled. This is a surprisingly active debate (try googling "the proper spelling of whoa"). And it appears that one's preferred spelling depends on which side of that typical fault line you stand: age. Or, I guess, felt age. Or pretend age. Or...well, you know what I mean.

Since nobody else seems to have come up with a rule for when you should spell it woah, and when you should stop spelling it wrong and use whoa, (see what I did there?) I'll do it. If you're over the age of thirty, using woah unironically is akin to wearing skinny jeans, Crocs, and a derby to church, pretending to like Post Malone, and sporting a Maori shoulder tattoo even though you were born in Grand Prairie, Texas, and graduated from SMU with a degree in international finance and work at a credit union. IOW, don't.

Oh, and if you are under thirty? Also don't.

*The random link to the "whoa" article was an unexpected bit of whimsy. I'd love to know why the reporter chose to send readers off on that tangent. Also, I wish we'd have been shown a photo of the employee's overly tiny facial features.

Alert Gazette readers will recall that about a year ago, I began to document the goings-on of the family of red-shouldered hawks in a tree near our house. We monitored them through mid-summer, until the juveniles departed the nest to begin their own lives. At some point, the nest itself was completely demolished, diminishing our hope that the parents would return this year.

However, a couple of months ago we started noticing the beginnings of a new nest in another live oak down the street from us. We periodically spotted hawks in that tree, and there was still an intact nest, but then they seemed to disappear for a few weeks and we thought they'd abandoned that tree in favor of another nesting spot.

Yesterday morning, as we headed out for a run, we noticed a hawk sitting on the edge of what was now an impressively large nest. That seemed to indicate that we were wrong in our assumption about the nest being abandoned.

Photo - adult red-shouldered hawk perched on the side of its nest
A ground-level view of the hawk perched on the side of the nest

So, as one does, later in the day I fired up the drone and did some spying. Look what I found:

Photo - red-shouldered hawk nestling

The adult hawks had been busy, away from our prying eyes, and there was now a nestling. However, there were three of them last year, so we don't know whether fewer eggs were laid this year, or some of them didn't hatch.

By the way -- and I'll warn you that the following photo might be disturbing if you have an huge fondness for small reptiles of the non-serpentine variety -- the small white object to the lower left of the nestling represents what I'm guessing is the remains of a recent meal. The shape appears to be the headless body of a Texas spiny lizard. It's a tough old world out there. 

Photo - closeup of a headless lizard, aka 'hawk lunch'

The nest is almost fifty feet above the ground, and is well-shielded except for an opening directly overhead that is custom-designed for a peeping drone.

Photo - red-shouldered hawk nest viewed from above'

The adult hawks were nowhere to be least not in the tree. But a hundred yards away, perched on an electrical transmission tower, I noticed that one of the adults seemed to be keeping an eye on the nest. 

I wanted to get a closer photo but the drone's battery was almost drained so I had to shoot what I could and bring it back for a landing.

Photo - adult red-shouldered hawk on a tower close to its nest

Last year was filled with challenges, but the hawk family served as a pleasant distraction. 2021 has already had its own ups and downs, but my hope is that nature will once again redeem some of those low points. Stay tuned!

Alert Gazette readers will recall that last week I posted several photos from our recent trip to South Padre Island and promised to discuss them at some point. This is that point.

I touched-up each of those photos to some extent because what came out of the camera didn't match my vision for the scene. (That sounds pretty hoity-toity, doesn't it?) I initially drafted a detailed explanation about what I was trying to achieve and how I went about processing the image with that goal in mind. But it came across and pretentious and bored even me -- and I usually love reading my own stuff -- so all I'm going to do here is present the after-and-before photos. The lesson to be learned is that with the right software, the camera is only the beginning of the creative process.

The following photo is of a man fishing in the Laguna Madre, aka "The Bay." Click-and-drag the vertical yellow line to reveal the original image.

Photo - fisherman in Laguna Madre, South Padre Island Photo - fisherman in Laguna Madre, South Padre Island

The next photo is of some gnarled trees and vines at the Atascosa Wildlife Preserve on the mainland across from South Padre Island. Again, drag the yellow bar to reveal the original photo.

Photo - gnarled trees - Atascosa Wildlife Preserve Photo - gnarled trees - Atascosa Wildlife Preserve

The final picture is of the sunset over Laguna Madre, taken from the deck of a restaurant.

You know the drill; drag the yellow bar.

Photo - sunset over Laguna Madre, South Padre Island Photo - sunset over Laguna Madre, South Padre Island

Random Thursday
May 13, 2021 10:09 AM | Posted in: ,

Note: This is an abbreviated edition of RT because alert Gazette readers deserve a break.

Today's edition of the Wall Street Journal has a report about the significant increase in cheating in schools and colleges as a result of...well...many things, including the pandemic-induced shift to online classes. I was struck by the lengths that some students are going to in their attempts to improve their academic standings without actually improving their knowledge. Take this quote from the article as an example:

Quote from the article

I grudgingly credit those students in the last example for having commendable creativity along with their disappointing ethics. (Unless, of course, the exam was in a drama class, in which case I hope they got A's.)

Most disappointing to me personally was the revelation that "Texas A&M University had a 50% increase in cheating allegations in the fall from a year earlier, with one incident involving 193 students self-reporting academic misconduct to receive lighter punishment after faculty members caught on..."

Alert Gazette readers will recall a recent post describing some of our recent trip to South Padre Island. Here are some additional photos from that trip, and I will devote a future post to some discussion about these pictures. For now, please feel free to enjoy the brevity of this offering.

Photo - Fisherman in Laguna Madre
Photo - Sunset over Laguna Madre
Photo - Gnarled trees at Atascosa Wildlife Refuge

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'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.