Sunday, November 30, 2008

Damaged Wing

This White Peacock butterfly (Anartia jatrophae) is a southern species -- primarily found in southern Florida and southern Texas, although it can occasionally venture further north. This butterfly, with a damaged wing, was in the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Camouflage in Nature

Photo Location: Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, Rio Grande Valley

Mother Nature finds ways to hide her creatures -- here are some from a walk through the refuge on Black Friday. It sure was a nicer way to spend the day than fighting the crowds at the mall!

(Click for larger image if you have trouble seeing some of the creatures)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

South Padre Island

Location: Rio Grande Valley, TX

Click for Larger Image of South Padre SignFirst, let me apologize for this post to all of you "up North" who are shivering in below freezing temps or -- gasp -- shoveling the "S" stuff so you can get to the store to buy bread, milk, and toilet paper! But here in south Texas it's beach weather, and the lovely barrier island, South Padre, is less than an hour away.

Click for Larger Image of BeachSouth Padre is actually in the "off season" now -- things really get going around spring break, when all the sun-worshiping kids who don't go to Daytona show up here. There were ads for snorkeling, para-sailing, horseback riding on the beach, dolphin watches, and, my favorite -- taking sandcastle-making classes for -- get this -- $75 an hour! Whoever thought up that career should get an Entrepreneur-of-the-Year Award!

Click for Larger Image of Boy on BeachWe were there on the weekend, and the sun was shining, the waves were high, the pelicans were hunting, the surfers were paddling (and sometimes riding, sometimes falling), and the beach was perfect for walking. The sand is very compacted here, and soft on the bare feet. A lot of children were playing in the surf, but I'm guessing the beach would be almost deserted during the week when they are -- hopefully -- back in school.

Click for Larger Image of John WadingThe Padre Islands are a group of barrier islands that run from Corpus Christi, 160 miles to the north, to Brownsville, the southern-most point in Texas. The upper portion is a National Seashore, while the lower portion is the spring break playground. The island almost runs into the spot where the Rio Grande used to dump into the Gulf of Mexico -- I say used to, because the amount of water siphoned off for drinking and irrigation is now most of the river. This site on Google Maps shows the water puddling just short of the Gulf, its exit blocked by sand -- sand that the Rio Grande itself may once have deposited there.

Friday, November 21, 2008

South Texas Critters

Location: Rio Grande Valley

Here are some critters I found around the park -- two spiders (what I think is a jumping spider, and a tiny green spider that I have not been able to identify at all), a snail, and a bee targeting a flower:

Click for Larger Image of Spider Click for Larger Image of SpiderClick for Larger Image of Snail
Click for Larger Image of Bee and Flower

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Rio Grande Valley - Santa Ana NWR

Location: Alamo, Texas

The Rio Grande Valley -- my home for the next six weeks -- is a 60-mile stretch of land from Brownsville, TX to Mission, TX that hugs the Mexican border. It is a haven for northern snowbirds, who here are called "Winter Texans." I am near the western side, in Alamo, about 5 miles north of the Rio Grande River. This area is a contrast of cultures -- the desperately poor neighborhoods, where the per capita income is under $10,000, are within walking distance of shops like Macy's and Penney's, expensive restaurants, movie theaters, outlet malls, and all the other amenities of "The Strip."

Click for Larger Image of Butterfly Due south from Alamo is the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, where large numbers of birds, butterflies, insects, and a few interesting mammals such as bobcats, coyotes, armadillos, and jaguarundi can be found. Many of the flying creatures are migratory, and use this area as a stop-over as they head north in the spring or south in the fall.

The refuge has an hour-and-a-half tram ride, and we managed to get on the last ride of the day. A tour guide pointed out flora, fauna, and history along the way, and we stopped every so often for short hikes. As we were walking on one of the trails we spotted... something... odd ... on the ground. There were small green leaves in a pile at the base of a tree, and it sure looked like the leaves were moving!

Man Watching Ants

It turned out a long, single-file string of ants were marching from a high tree branch, down the side of the tree, and into a hole in the ground -- each one carrying a leaf! Unfortunately, we didn't think to look higher to see how the "cutters" were felling what to them was the equivalent of a tree!

Click for Larger Image of the Ant's Trail Click for Larger Image of Ants on Tree

The tram continued through heavy vegetation where butterflies, dragonflies, and damselflies were everywhere, then on a side road that led to an old cemetery, and finally to the Rio Grande River itself. We could see evidence of crossings -- abandoned bottles that had been used as flotation devices and clothing that had been dropped littered the shore. After we left the area, we heard an Immigration powerboat go speeding down the river. From our viewpoint, it looked to be a pretty easy crossing.

Here are some additional pictures:

Click for Larger Image of the Rio Grande River Click for Larger Image of Damselfly Click for Larger Image of Dragonfly Click for Larger Image of John and Butterfly Click for Larger Image of Damselfly Click for Larger Image of Damselfly Click for Larger Image of Cemetery Click for Larger Image of  Butterfly

I can already tell that this refuge will be a favorite of mine while I'm here!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Galveston, Two Months Post-Ike

Location: Galveston Island, TX

Click for Larger Image of Street DamageJust short of one year ago, I visited Galveston for the first time and returned now to see how it withstood Hurricane Ike. Galveston, a barrier island on the gulf coast south of Houston, is known for historically bad hurricanes, the solid seawall that protects them now, suspected pirate booty, and Glen Campbell's 1969 hit. Two months ago, in September 2008, Galveston was again a hurricane magnet as the enormous storm, Ike, made landfall.

Click for Larger Image of McDonald's SignIn Livingston, where Ike sat spinning for hours, fallen trees and wind did most of the damage. The drive to Galveston was similar -- uprooted trees, some huge, were still lying where they had fallen, branches and twigs still littered lots and roadsides, and FEMA dump trucks could be seen hauling it all away. Many roofs were partially covered with blue tarps, waiting for repairs. Large, high business signs took a big hit -- they were often cracked and broken, and there was not a single McDonald's golden arches sign along our route that survived intact.

Click for Larger Image of Typical StreetOnce we got to Galveston, that changed. There was still a lot of tree debris everywhere you looked, but now broken furniture, pieces of wallboard, appliances, and carpet were added to the piles along the roads. I had expected to see many destroyed buildings, but most of them deceptively look rather normal. The damage here was not caused just by the high wind, but also by the storm surge water that almost swept across the entire island, flooding most buildings.

Click for Larger Image of Grounded BoatsThe water had lifted and dropped many boats on dry land, where they still sat, tilted and dented. Street signs were twisted, garage doors were ripped apart, and less sturdy structures, such as sheds, had their outer skins stripped and were now just metal skeletons.

Click for Larger Image of Shore DamageThe real power of the storm became apparent at the seawall, built after Galveston suffered a devastating hurricane in 1900. Structures that used to sit on piers were gone, as were some of the piers. Debris littered the beach -- concrete, rebar, and even a refrigerator came to rest there. Stairway railings were twisted and bent, and in some cases totally pulled free of the concrete. In places the sidewalk next to the seawall had collapsed into drainage troughs, leaving huge, gaping holes. While the waves did crash over the top of the seawall, it held. The water depth here reached the middle of the ground floor -- and these buildings were entirely above the top of the seawall.

Click for Larger Image of Hotel The Flagship Hotel, perched on a sturdy pier in the middle of the seawalled area, was badly damaged. Both the driveways into the hotel had been ripped from the pier, and lay in shambles below. Railings were bent flat. The storm ripped a huge hole out of the middle of the hotel and furniture and a mirror could be seen still inside. Two cars, visible in this photo (taken from the second floor of a restaurant across the street), had been parked there before the storm and are now stuck -- with the driveways demolished, there is no way to get them off.

Click for Larger Image of Hotel Bridge Collapse Click for Larger Image of Hotel Hole

While Galveston, on the outside, looks much more normal than I had thought it would, the flood damage on the inside is enormous. Businesses are beginning to re-open, but most are still closed while they clean up. Life will get back to normal in Galveston, but it will be a while.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Big Thicket National Preserve

Location: South-eastern Texas

Click for Larger Image of Big ThicketFlashback to the last ice age -- as the cold and ice pushed southward, animal and plant species did so too. Many of them, from the southeastern swamps, the eastern forests, the central plains, and the southwestern deserts ended up coexisting in East Texas in an area called the "Big Thicket." At first glance the Big Thicket looks like any other jumble of underbrush interspersed with trees, but inside the thickets are orchids, carnivorous plants, palmettos, pines, and deciduous trees. Bluebirds and roadrunners co-exist, and even the Ivory Billed Woodpecker was reportedly seen here as late as 1971.

Click for Larger Image of Field of Pitcher Plant BogThere are lots of hiking trails here, and we opted for a one-mile hike called the Pitcher Plant Trail. Let me emphasize -- I hiked a mile. That's the most I've done since the ankle break! It felt really good to get out in nature, even though this particular part of nature was outfitted with quarter-mile boardwalk!

Click for Larger Image of Pitcher Plant The boardwalk snaked through a bog filled with fields of pitcher plants, one of four carnivorous plants found in the Big Thicket (the only carnivorous plant NOT found here is the Venus Flytrap). To capture its meal, the pitcher plant secrets a scent that is appealing to insects. When they go to investigate, they can easily stand on the top edge of the plant, where the attractive scent lures them further into the tube. As they move downwards, hairs inside the plant get more slippery and begin pointing downward, providing a barrier to escape. Soon the insect is not able to get a foothold, and eventually falls into the bottom of the tube where enzymes begin to digest the meal.

Click for Larger Image of Praying Manitis
In addition to the pitcher plants, we saw lizards, butterflies, a dragonfly, and this praying mantis -- a very cooperative one who didn't mind sitting on my leg for a portrait. There were numerous flies, who sometimes landed on the lip of the pitcher plants, but we never saw one fall in. A few mosquitoes, a crow or two, and a black snake crossing the road were the only other fauna we saw -- but there are a lot of trails here, and I'd like to make return visits to see what else might be lurking in the thickets.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

GPS Blues

What happens when you
  1. Change your GPS from "Quickest Route" to "Shortest Route" and then
  2. Get off a main highway, where the speed limit is 70 and the trees are a blur, to follow the route the GPS has chosen?
Click for Larger Image of Country Road

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Jury Duty

Back in May, I found a summons for Jury duty when my accumulated mail caught up with me. The date to report had already passed!

With visions of bench warrants dancing in my head, I immediately called the court and explained that I was a full-time RVer, and had just received the summons. This is one advantage to domiciling in Polk County Texas, where thousands of full-timers are based -- the court system is very understanding. They told me there was no problem, and to come in the next time I was in town.

When I got to Livingston I called to find out how to get scheduled and was told they just had a trial the day before, but I could go to the next one on November 3rd. It seemed very informal -- they didn't even take my name!

So yesterday I reported to the courthouse along with 150 or so of my neighbors. I only recognized two of them -- a lady who works in the tax assessor/vehicle registration department and the guy who does inspections at a local RV repair place. We were greeted at the door by the Bailiff, a burly man with a Texan drawl, a Texas flag tie, and all sorts of stuff hanging from his belt -- guns, a taser, handcuffs, and a few mystery weapons. He turned out to be quite nice -- at one point he noticed I was reading my Kindle and came over to ask me how I liked it.

Once we had filled out our juror questionnaires and indicated whether we wanted our $6 juror payment to be sent to us or a local charity (I selected Escapees CARE), we were sent on a "break" that lasted over 45 minutes. During this time, 50 random juror's names were selected, and these formed the jury pool for the first trial. The rest of us were dismissed until 1 PM, at which time a second set of jurors would be chosen for another trial later in the week.

When we returned, we were told that the subsequent trial had been settled out of court, so our jury service was complete. We were told we would not be called again for at least 3 months. I'll watch my mail then as I seem to be something of a juror-magnet -- I have been called five times, at least once in every state I've lived in!

Saturday, November 01, 2008

On Voting, Texas Style

Click for Larger Image of Republican Signs
Homemade signs in Texas sure have a cowboy way about them, don't they?

This is the first year that I have been a resident of a state that allowed voting early, so I decided to take advantage of it -- my ballot is already cast, and will ostensibly be counted on November 4th. In 2002 and 2004, I cast absentee ballots -- the first because I would just barely be recovering from surgery, and the second because I was being sent out-of-state (Kansas, I think) by my work. Other than that, I have voted only on election day itself since I was 18.

When I entered the Polk County Courthouse, the official poll site for early voting here in Livingston, I was the only one in "line," if one person can be a line. My voter registration card was examined and stamped with a little red "VOTED" and the date; I signed a large ledger-like piece of paper where oddly the addresses were recorded and then the paper flipped so the signatures were upside down; and I was directed to one of three electronic voting booths by a chatty poll worker.

The booth was a temporary fixture, sitting on spindly legs in the middle of the corridor, and featured two small strips of plastic that ran down the sides to prevent others, if others had actually been there, from seeing my selections. It looked like a small computer, complete with a touch-screen interface and a large, friendly, red button that proclaimed "VOTE". Once the touch screen selections were made, a confirmation screen was presented so you could review your ballot to be sure the computer was about to correctly record your vote. The red button also lit up, and by pushing it you sent your vote on its way to wherever voter electrons go.

While I have voted in every Presidential election since I came of age, I have never been one to encourage people to vote if they have neither the interest nor the information to cast an informed ballot. I don't check a box, or push a button, or click an icon, or punch a chad if I haven't made myself informed of the pros and cons of the issue or candidate -- and I did skip some local issues in this election because I hadn't researched them or felt that I would not be affected by the decision in any meaningful way.

Having said that, I still would encourage all of you -- but especially the women -- to watch Iron Jawed Angels before election day, or read this Snopes article Why Women Should Vote. It puts focus on how tough the fight was for women to gain the right to vote -- a right we so often take for granted. As an aside, did you know that women had the right to vote in Wyoming since 1869? They hoped it would bring women to the frontier.

In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment" to the Constitution finally conferred the right. It says, simply, "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."

I'm not trying to shame anyone into voting -- if you choose not to, you'll get no recriminations from me -- the right to vote is also the right not to vote. But, whether you decide to hit the polls or not, take a moment, regardless if you are a man or a woman, to thank those who made that choice possible for all of us.

Halloween At Rainbow's End

Location: Livingston, Texas

Happy Halloween from Livingston! We didn't get any Trick or Treaters last night, but we did have a fun get-together in the club house. Here are some of the party-goers (NOTE: Molly, as the patient, lost her "plastic butt" somewhere, so all we saw through the back slit was her shorts. You have to wonder what the person who found it thought).

Click for Larger Image of George the Sheriff and Molly The Patient Click for Larger Image of Marian, as Joe the Plumber Click for Larger Image of ZoAnn and John as a Pair O' Keet Click for Larger Image of Marsha the Witch Click for Larger Image of The Group