Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Wild Life, or Jave you seen My Javelina?

On a recent road skirmish (I'm like my Dad, I like taking back roads) I managed a hat-trick on wildlife shots in one day.

The little piece of road upon which we found all of these critters ran between Ft. Davis, Texas to U.S. 90, just east of Valentine, TX.

Meet the Javelina, a critter in the same order (artiodactyla) as the barnyard pig, but with enough differences to score a place in a different family tayassuidae. The Javelina ranges from the Southwestern U.S. to the very tip of the Southern Cone, in Argentina.

The Javelina is a relative new-comer to North America, having arrived in the 17th or 18th century. It's a pretty interesting looking critter!

We also enjoy tons of antelope, here are a pair of pronghorn that seemed pretty interested in what I was doing:

The following photograph is of one of my favorite birds, the Raven. Now, I'm not an ornithologist, so I can't tell for certain if this bird is a Chihuahan Raven or a Common Raven, as far as I know it could be either. Considering we were in the high Chihuahan desert, either species is a possibility. I love the size and power of the Raven, and their calls. I also believe they are very intelligent and crafty birds. I don't believe that old superstition about the Raven being a bad omen, on the contrary, I think it is good luck to see one.

I found a fourth critter, but it turned out to be extinct. It was an old-time, honest-to-goodness filling station slap in the middle of nowhere:

A couple of thoughts from behind the lens...

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Washing the Cat

At times I have a tough time getting the cat into the washing machine. Here she deftly tries to hide from me behind some hanging clothes. After getting her in there, though, she does quite well.

She comes out of the dryer all nice and fluffy and clean as you can see in the following photo:

I'm having a heck of a time with the lint filter, however...

Monday, March 28, 2005

The Cult of "Tot"

Tot came home one day with my daughter from first grade. I don't remember the exact date she brought Tot home, but it must have been in late January or early February. I do remember that almost immediately after bringing Tot home she had me remove two hog-rings that held two plastic snaps that one could use to lash the unsuspecting Tot to a backpack or some other school-age accoutrement. I think Tot telepathically had her free him from his backpack-lashing snaps of bondage.

Tot is extremely powerful, and is especially persuasive with kids around six years old. Since Tot's appearance on the scene, Tot has morphed into a a kiddie folk hero around these parts. Tot's visage graces the walls of my daughter's first grade classroom, you see, Tot is very easy to draw or paint. Tot also is well known at my daughter's after-school program, where the counselors take turns watching over the little yellow guy while my daughter plays. Of course, Tot's image is pasted about there like so many pictures of Saddam in Baghdad. Hmmm, I think Tot's clever appearance was very well planned out...

Tot is from the stable of characters that hawks food from the Sonic drive-in chain, but my daughter didn't get him there. She got him from a draw out of the treasure box at school as a reward for some long forgotten act of performance or behavior. One troubling thing about Tot for me, as Emily's Dad, is that I have not been able to locate a "replacement" Tot, in the event that something unspeakable might happen to Tot #1. I thought finding a replacement Tot would be easy, but it seems they gave away Tots as a premium with a kid's meal a couple of years ago or perhaps even longer. The only evidence I can find of Tot's existence is on the Sonic website, where he is billed as the longtime running companion of the Sonic crewmember "Molly", or when he appears with the Molly character in printed Sonic material.

Tot's behavior is manifested in many ways that would remind you of a six-year old child's. Tot leaves notes to "Sissy" wishing her a good day at school, and Tot recieves many presents from Emily. Tot has a jewel-encrusted dwelling (a little gift box bought in an Alpine, TX gift shop) where he may be found about half the time. We spend a portion of every day looking for Tot, where we have been lucky in finding him every time (someone knock on some mesquite). Tot's hygiene is very good, because he bathes whenever his benefactor does. Tot brushes teeth, eats popcorn, drinks Dr. Pepper, Tot does it all, and his faculties seem to only grow every day.

The irony about Tot is that he cost nothing. Zippo. Nada. Tot's appearance was pure serendipity. Hopefully young Ms. Emily will get around to playing with some of those expensive American Girl dolls that Santa Claus delivered at Christmas.

I think she'll get around to them eventually, but for right now, there is only Tot.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Spring has Sprung

While it remains cool in the evenings, sometime even cold, spring has arrived to the Edward's plateau. Afternoon sun warms the earth, and the flowers bloom, bees buzz, and the grass grows. This placid season precedes what is the windiest month of the year for us, April, and then three or four months of terrifying mesoscale thunderstorms and scalding hot summer temps. Fortunately, San Angelo is just on the very southern fringe of the area that hosts the majority of supercells and really destructive tornadoes. Abilene, only 100 miles to the north, gets pounded unmercifully every year. If you want to go to Wichita Falls this time of year, buy extra insurance...

You can see from the above picture, San Angelo has little in the way of geography to protect it from bad weather. This photograph was taken from at least 20 miles to south of downtown San Angelo, on the west side of Cristoval, Texas. The tallest building you see center frame is the famous Cactus Hotel, an original Hilton hotel, built by Conrad Hilton himself in 1929 (only his fourth hotel). Of course, we knew what was going on in 1929, so the Cactus had a rocky start. That building is 14 stories tall.

West Texas, as dry and desolate as it may seem, is a haven for bird life, and we have all sorts here, from waterfowl, to passerines, to raptors and everything in between.

I saw this Red Tailed Hawk today on my way home from my friend's house in Cristoval, were I was helping him roof his garage. This critter did me the favor of taking a second perch after stopping my truck caused him to alight, allowing me to capture his image. He sure is beautiful, and hungry. Fortunately, there is plenty of forage for him this year, as we've had a wet year, which benefits his choosen prey greatly. We all benefit from the water, especially after a ten-year drought.

Yes, the water is running this year. Above you see the South Concho River (I labeled the photo incorrectly) with a healthy flow. Maybe we'll get some of our local reservoirs above three or four percent capacity. God willing...

Saturday, March 26, 2005

The Marfa Lights

I guess we'll come right out of the gate with a post about the Marfa lights.

Most people have at least heard talk about the mysterious orbs of light that are visible nine miles east of the town of Marfa on hwy 67/90. I've wanted to go see them many times, but living in San Angelo, the lights were about 250 miles to the southwest, and you know how precious time is nowadays. We finally made our way down to the Marfa area during our daughter's spring break. We were staying at a guest ranch near Ft. Davis, so we decided to make the short (relative to West Texas) 25 mile drive to Marfa on the night of the 14th of March, 2005. When I asked the desk clerk at the ranch about the best way to view the lights, she handed me a photocopy of a crude map to the viewing area and advised me to, "bring a bottle of tequila".

A little history about the lights, the legend states that a cowboy first saw the lights in the 1880s, but this piece of information cannot be corroborated. It seems the gentleman who saw them never documented that fact on paper (he wrote his memoirs in the 30s and failed to mention the lights) but family members tell of him describing them, so the information is heresay. This information is important, because many skeptics debunk the lights as motor vehicle traffic on highway 67 through the Paisano pass. Of course, if the lights were viewed by an 1880s cowhand, this puts a serious chink in that theory. Other theories abound, the lights are ghosts, ufos, stars, planets, etc. Some have claimed close encounters with the lights, but conventional wisdom states that the lights cannot be approached (hence the difficulty in getting close-up photos, or studying them in close quarters). The motor vehicle traffic theory is still a little tough to support, however, because the cars going through the pass are twenty to forty miles away from the viewing area. Seeing car headlights at a distance that great through close-to-the-ground atmosphere would be nearly impossible.

One fact about the lights is certain: they are important to the economy of the tiny West Texas town of Marfa, and to the economy of the region in general. Curious onlookers roll into town every night, and the TXDOT saw fit to build a viewing area due to the numbers of onlookers. It is complete with an overlook and free hard-mounted binoculars. The interesting thing about the viewing area's main building is that it uses waterless toilets (essentially a fixed porta-potty) that are actually "recycling toilets" that compost the human waste, so no water must be pumped out to the site. When you look down into the toilet, it is a black hole. Maybe that's where the lights emanate from, the copious energy drawn from tourist waste! What a coup, it would be a veritable self-licking ice cream cone!

If you want to come see the lights, be sure to give yourself enough time to see other local attractions like the McDonald observatory, Ft. Davis and the awesome True ValueHardware store in Alpine. Come early and eat dinner in Marfa. I recommend Carmen's for some good, cafe style Mexican food at extremely nice prices. I had their signature burrito smothered in green sauce dish, and it was very tasty. From there, head out to the viewing area before dusk, because the lights are active from dusk until late in the evening. Be sure to bring a heavy coat during winter months, and at least a windbreaker for spring and fall viewing. I'm sure the summer is warm enough not to worry.

If you plan on photographing the lights, you'll need to be prepared. The best time to shoot would be dusk until about nautical twilight, because it just gets super dark after that. You'll need a tripod and a good zoom lens to get intelligible images. I saw other people shooting the lights with point-and-shoot cameras with flashes going off, I knew they would not be impressed with the results. You'll obviously need a slow shutter. Use your camera's ten second release or a remote shutter release. The wind will move your tripod as well. The images you see here were shot using a Canon EOS 300D with a 80-300mm Canon zoom (a cheapie).

What are the lights? Are they the souls of dead Apaches wandering around the foothills? Are they the campfires of a lost batallion of calvary soldiers? Are they plasma, swamp-gas or starlight reflecting off mineral deposits? I can't tell you what they are, and after seeing them with my own eyes, I can tell you they are more mysterious than ever. The Marfa lights are an awesome bit of Texana that anyone can enjoy, they represent a delicious mystery, and in today's day and age, an enigmatic occurance that can't be explained using the best technology availabe.

If you do go to see them, don't forget your bottle of tequila.