Thursday, February 28, 2013


Hybrid Peregrine
I can drive razor sharp talons into prey in dives of over 200 mph. So yeah, go ahead, Instagram me like it makes you a worthwhile species.

There are elements of bird-watching that are invariably somewhat embarrassing. Explaining to family or friends one’s excitement at noting a particular species of duck. Being seen painstakingly stalking a three inch warbler in a public location as if your life depended on it. Trying to use names like “sapsucker”. “tit”, and “booby” without hint of irony. Even if one shields one’s self in the cladistic hoohah of birds as extant dinosaurs[i], allowing one to claim he is “dinosaur-viewing”, there is just something that inherently doesn’t translate well to the masses.

Luckily, we have raptors.

Clever girl…

Raptors, at least the extant variety, comprise a variety of specially-equipped, vertebrate-eating birds of prey including hawks, eagles, falcons, kites, vultures, owls, etc. Their primary grouping revolves around their adaptations related to efficient and skillfully killing their way to the top of the food chain. This is overly science-y talk for “raptors are badass birds who flying around visiting sharp pointy death from the skies upon all manner of creatures, without mercy”. The very origin of their name (from the Latin rapere, to seize or take forcibly) is hardcore. People can legitimately chuckle at one’s fascination with a comically waddling Tufted Puffin. No one laughs at lightning-quick, talon-bedecked baddassery. Raptors are inherently cool.

Cooper's Hawk
This is my war cry.

While I’m interested in all manner of wildlife, and have focused on birds for some time, my interest in a lot of birds is a bit detached. I have an academic curiosity, or a desire for novelty, or an interest in the general ecology they flit about in. However, I am full bore, fist-pumping excited about raptors.  Dizzying speeds, amazing eyesight, razor sharp beaks and talons, and the instinct to tear into whatever crosses their path? Sign me up.

This is my beak. It is where food goes. Unwillingly.

Growing up, I was surrounded by wildlife. As a kid in the country, I often played more with frogs and snakes than I did with other kids. I always had the general curiosity of children encountering other life forms (a heady mix of wonder and destructive impulses), but it was usually a transitory phenomenon.  However, the one thing that would always send me running to the big bay window in the kitchen with my parents’ massive, antiquated binoculars, was the sight of a Red-tailed hawk soaring on the thermals above our fields. It was an indelible mark on my early memory such that whenever I see a red-tail, I often think I can almost smell the musty old binocular case and feel the rough wood of the window frame on my elbows.

Red-tailed Hawk in
The red on my tail is actually bloodstains.

And I don’t think I’m alone. We made a raptor the symbol of our country[ii]. Indigenous people all over the world wear raptor feathers in ceremony. Even owls, the AV club of the raptors, are respected symbols of wisdom. Even reviled vultures are harbingers of the grim reaper. I mean, when the fecal matter absolutely hit the fan, what really saved Middle Earth? Big-ass eagles, that’s what.

“Mr. Owl, how many licks does it take to get to the center of a…OH MY GOD YOUR TALONS ARE SHREDDING MY VERY SOUL ASUNDER”

So, regardless of one’s understanding of the interest of chasing bitty little birds around the landscape, there is something universal about awe in seeing a raptor fly that needs no explanation. I think part of this is that when one looks at you, regardless of the assurances of your conscious mind, there is some part of you that is thinking “I’m pretty sure that feathered paragon of death is sizing me up as a meal”. And that, friends, is awesome[iii].

We’re watching you, human. We are totally going to eat you, even if it takes a whole mess of bites.

I’m the Harrier! Am I a hawk? Am I an owl? Who knows, who cares. Winged death by any other name kills as sweet.

American Kestrel in
We’re the falcons! OMG! We’re super cute! We’re dainty! We’re TOTAL KILLING MACHINES.

Barred Owl on
Great Horned
OwlEastern Screech Owl
We look cute, but we’re set up for soundless flight, can see in the dark, and can exert incredible crushing power with our talons. So, you know, go ahead and turn your back on us since we’re so harmless.  

We are become death, devourer of worlds. And dead stuff. And dying stuff. And pretty much just stuff in general.

Bald Eagle
Even if I was actually bald, I’d still be more awesome than you, pinky.

Raptors, from top to bottom are:
Peregrine Falcon, Red-tailed Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Feruginous Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Asiatic Eagle Owl, Rough-legged Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Northern Harrier, Northern Harrier, Merlin, American Kestrel, Barred Owl, Gret horned Owl, Eastern Screech Owl, Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, Bald Eagle.


[i] Yes I know I’m supposed to drink the Kool-Aid and worship at the phylogentic altar proclaiming birds as not only descended from dinosaurs, but that they ARE dinosaurs. I just don’t buy it. The emperor’s new clothes are just not that replendant. I know it’s oversimplifying it, but saying birds are dinosaurs, being the extant species of that subjective clade, is like saying humans are Gibbons (hylobatidae). Or rodents. Or bacteria. It’s a subjective classification masquerading as an absolute clade boundary. I have no  issue with talking about birds evolving from dinosaurs. But evolution is not a neatly divided thing; it is a continual, gradual process. You might as well say birds are archosaurs, or that which proceeded them, and so on. Saying a clade starts at any given point is like saying a family tree starts at a given point. I can say, yes, everyone in this tree descends from our great great great grandfather. But he in turn is a part of a tree going further back, etc. Birds evolved from dinosaurs. They are not dinosaurs, just as man evolved from early mammals, but is considered an extant synapsid. I know paleontology disagrees with me. Too bad, get your own blog, paleontology.
[ii] No thanks to Ben Franklin. A turkey? Really? Get the hell out of here with that.
[iii] I realize that this post has the tone of a 9 year old writing about ninjas. So be it. 

The Art and Agitation of Landscapes

west texas ag
Agricultural kaleidoscope

Before I was exiled from Eden moved to Texas, I had the same conception of it shared by most northerners…a vast expanse of desert populated by longhorns, grizzled cowfolk, and oil derricks[i]. And while there’s a Gibraltar-sized kernel of truth in that assessment, the actual geography of Texas is fairly varied.

plains bottomlands central mountain pineywoods castal
The vastly flat plains of northern Texas, the verdant river bottomlands, the hardscrabble scrublands of the Hill Country, The sort-of mountains of West Texas, the dense forests and lakes of the East Texas Pineywoods, and the immense and scarred coastal wetlands[ii].  The land types of Texas are as varied as the ways in which we’ve gone about mucking them up.

While it’s impressive in its, well, bigness, what’s equally impressive is the extent to which we’ve modified massive bits of it; creating green swathes in the desert, altering the course of rivers, and building sprawling cities that can be seen from space. The human geography of Texas is as much a part of the landscape as the processes of time, water and wind.

For example, Houston, which is easily visible from space. It’s the outlined massive grey blob against the surrounding green.600+ square miles of sprawling impervious cover; larger than many prominent “natural” features of the landscape (impact craters, etc.)

I’ve always loved maps. Mostly because they fundamentally change the way our brains think of our environs. Ever since I was a kid there was something about looking at places on maps that fired up the imagination. The advent of aerial and satellite imagery adds an even deeper dimension to that experience.  I work a lot with maps in my job, so I get used to seeing things from the 20,000 foot view. Every once in a while, I see something in an aerial/satellite image that just amazes me. But I think I’ve come to also appreciate that our familiar landscapes, even those most mundane and unexciting from the ground, can turn into unintentional art when viewed from above. It makes for an interesting juxtaposition with the consideration of the scale of our impact on the land. 

The Leucke woods are one of my favorite Texas landscapes, especially since there are so many contrasting legends as to the reason they exist. Look carefully at the lower edge of the photo…you’ll see the city of Smithville. This should give you an idea of the size of this man-made alteration. Some stories claim the rancher did it as part of a property dispute, some say he just felt like it. However, it is apparently the largest of its kind, at 3100 feet long and 1700 feet wide. It’s so large, astronauts have used it to calibrate camera technology from space. You can see a flyover of it here. This is just pure, unadulterated Texas, writ large (literally.)

Rice Farming was a predominant activity of a large portion of southeastern Texas until the bottom went out of the market and water got scarce. Rice fields have internal baffles and contours that appear as mounded lines from the ground, but take on an artificial but beautiful pattern from above. The irony is that they look like topo maps, though they are often in areas with little or no actual topographical change.

Tawakoni water
travis water
Water Dragons - According to Texas lore, Caddo Lake on its eastern border is the only natural, non-horseshoe, lake in Texas. While this is arguably inaccurate, what is true is that the majority of lakes in Texas are the result of damming projects on rivers. The vast lakes of eastern Texas[iii] are almost all reservoirs. The scale of this alteration of the land is hard to even comprehend for the left side of my brain. Luckily, the right side of my brain thinks that the characteristic reservoir shape (long, linear, jagged edges mirroring the drainage basins of the surrounding land) look like some sort of land-bound dragons roaming across the landscape[iv].

The Bolivar Peninsula extends eastward from the entrance of Galveston Bay. At its western tip, a massive jetty thrusts out into the Gulf to protect the narrow entrance to Galveston Bay from sediment carried by the currents moving down to the southwest. The jetty is an amazing 5 miles long and has drastically altered the transport of sediment along the Gulf[v]. North of the jetty, the sediment buildup has created vast mudflats, beaches and marshes, yielding an immensely productive Audubon shorebird sanctuary.

West texas
west texas ag in
Agriculture has long been the backbone of Texas, and there is no landscape that has remained untamed, save the most mountainous extremes. Regions of agricultural fields form a mosaic patchwork on the land, and stand out in stark contrast along the Rio Grande River and in the arid regions of west Texas r[vi]. The ability to carve out green swathes in dry and dusty land speaks as much to perseverance and Texas’ history as it does to the coming firestorm of water scarcity. Yet again, my right brain takes a break from such weighty left brain considerations to see the sad beauty of these contrasts when viewed from above.  

west texas oilfields
west texas oilfields
2 west texas oilfields
Oil and Texas are inextricably bound in reality as well as popular image. The pictures above show, in deceasing altitude, the vast expanse of oil/gas fields in Texas. When I first flew over west Texas, I thought it curious that so many seeming suburban developments had this odd circuit board appearance. It wasn’t until later that I learned that what I assumed to be remote developments were just the uniform, sprawling well fields. Vast plains of derricks, moving in unison to some unending primordial rhythm.

On the other end of things are the lunar landscapes of the refinery industry of the coast. As much as the scale of the land devoted a single, unyielding purpose staggers the mind, the view from above is fascinating. It’s like someone modeled the surface of the Death Star in unimaginably large Legos.

 It’s landscapes like that that make me take some comfort that the environs of my less-than-beloved place in this vast state remain a little greener than most[vii].

The sprawl-oases of Barker and Addicks Reservoirs, and the linear Terry Hershey Park. House marked with yellow star. 

[i] Admittedly, a good chunk of Texas is exactly this.
[ii] The small “wave” like features in the open water are some sort of man-made baffles or breakwaters. This is a great example of the scope and extent that we have altered the coastal wetlands, mostly for oil production. What’s interesting is how much has been altered, and how few people know what these structures once were. Where I hike on the coast, there are a myriad of these remnants, seemingly without purpose or explanation, like artifacts of another civilization or alien graffiti. The Texas coast, for all its growth and buzz is a place swarming with the ghosts of its past, carved indelibly on the land.
[iii] Again, most of which are visible from space
[iv] From top, Lakes Tawakoni and Travis
[v] Though admittedly, this is balanced in some part by the fact that much more sediment flow out of our rivers than is natural. Some river mouths have actually been closed by sediment from upcurrent rivers, forcing water into the inter-coastal waterway than runs parallel to the shore (itself a massive engineering project, running the entire length of the Texas coast.
[vi] Second and third photos, respectively
[vii] That’s of course when stupid left brain breaks in with concerns about location and equity of the economics of where people live. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

DIY Desk, Part III

A bit over a year ago we decided that, having far too much free time and excess funds, it was time we bought a house to relieve us of both. Having been cooped in an apartment for the better part of a decade, we had a dearth of furniture[i]. When we moved into our relatively larger new space I decided I needed an equally new desk[ii]. As I’ve written about previously, the idea of a DIY wood desk was sparked by seeking something I liked in the store and thinking those four damnable words “I could build that!”
I spent some time figuring out what I wanted and and how to build it. I acquired tools…manly tools. Tools brimming with the shiny electric promise of power, craftsmanship, and potential accidental dismemberment.  I perused lumber stores, read up on finishes, made 3d computer models, and started work on my trestle desk[iii].

And then changed my mind. A lot. I ended up ditching the trestle style for a passing infatuation with a “campaign” style desk I saw on a website. Many a tree was sacrificed to my mental vacillation. Hunks of mangled wood built up in the corners of my miniscule shop like misshapen children, mocking me with their little streaky, warped faces. I learned almost entirely by trial and error which is evident by the mixture of sawdust, blood, and tears that carpets every surface in our garage.

Something went awry.

The final steps in the process were to assemble and finish the base, build and finish a new top out of pine and poplar edging, build drawers and install them, and finish the base in lacquer (shown below). So essentially, everything but cut the wood. The addition of a pocket hole jig and new drill helped a lot.  

Constructing and finishing a new top.

Finished top grain. A little streaky, by weathered look works for campaign style.

Drilling pocket holes.

Building and staining drawers.

Finished drawers in place.

Desk before final staining, lacquer application and hardware.

Hardware attached, drawers partially open (they fit flush). Spreader on bottom still needs to be put in place.

Here at the tail end of the journey, I now have a functioning desk. Not perfect, not without flaw, but functioning. The one upside of going with a historical “campaign” style is that any flaw can be simply written off as “historic”. Issues with the finish? Historic! Slightly wobbly? Historic! Potentially cursed as a result of desperate pacts made with dark entities in some of my more desperate moments? Historic!


[i] In conversations with friends, no one would buy that it was simply “minimalist” aesthetic, or at least not deliberately so.
[ii] My previous desk was also a DIY special, but one made without the benefit of such niceties as appropriate tools, plans, or common sense. More than one woodworker hissed and recoiled like a vampire from holy water when they saw it. 
[iii] I even put aside my ongoing blood fued with math long enough to figure out the angles and dimensions and such. Don’t get complacent, math. I still hate you. Just saying.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Spring, Houston style

Spring Blossoms
Spring blossoms.

Over the course of this week, I’ve had a chance to get out a few times for some quick walks after work. Spring is well into its hurried and fleeting greening of the landscape. Our winter species are on their way out, and early spring arrivals are starting to show up. The wildflowers will be establishing a beachhead soon, with bird migration pouring through in quick succession. The in-between time, however, is one of transitions.  The remnants of winter’s color palettes still draining slowly from the land, pushed out by the incessant creeping green. The skies still flare from fiery red to cooler blues at night, but our brief winter is decidedly in retreat in front of an even briefer spring.

Old Vegetation

Goldfinch Reflected
Departing American Goldfinch, Bare Winter Cypress

Spring hits hard and fast in Houston. The temperatures may tumble back and forth for a week or two, but once winter’s back is broken, spring doesn’t waste a whole lot of time. Buds burst from trees, and Green gallops across the fields. It’s not a teasing spring like up north…with hints of warmth on the wind, and the slow trickle of snowmelt. No hurried male pulses at those first sign of winter-whitened skin unleashed from strata of jackets and sweaters. It’s an efficient spring, in a hurry, unconcerned. Just like the City it sweeps over.

Path through the Green

Buds and
Spring Blossoms

Early Wildflower