Daily Archives: June 5, 2012

Tales From The Ranch: And now for the horror

And before poor Dave gets into his head that I’m going to stop joshing him, I have to share the story of the ceiling fan birdnest. The area around the ranch is habitat for the black-tailed gnatcatcher (Polioptila melanura), and they spend most afternoons and evenings snagging as many insects as they can manage. When not hunting, they spend their time watching us crazy humans, mostly to take advantage of the situation.

Black-tailed gnatcatcher

“Taking advantage of the situation,” in this case, refers to using appropriate human structures to facilitate their own nestmaking. Specifically, they like using the house located on the property, particularly the big open deck on the back. Shortly after arriving at the ranch for the last big family gathering, my sister-in-law found this nest atop a ceiling fan over the deck, and a quick peek showed that it had eggs and at least one hatchling.

Gnatcatcher nest

Getting up to the nest to observe further had issues, the least of which was the lack of head clearance above the ceiling fan blades. Tilting the blades to get a better view risked knocking the nest off the fan. In the end, my nephew Bruce and I settled for putting cameras up to the nest, taking whatever pictures we could, and backing off before the parents came back. After doing so, we had a bit of a surprise.

Gnatcatcher nest contents

If you’re observant, you’ll note that the hatchling inside the nest, while still blind and helpless, is considerably larger than its eggs. You may also note that the eggs aren’t the same color. That’s because both the hatchling and one of the eggs both belong to a brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater), which is also common to the area. Cowbirds get their name because of their otherwise encouraging habit of picking ticks and other pests from cattle, bison, and other big herd animals. Since bison herds are migratory, the cowbirds evolved to take advantage of other birds’ instincts and parasitize them. The mother cowbird arrives at a nest while the parents are gone, lays one to two eggs, and moves on, reasonably assured that the foster parents will lay on the clutch and feed the hatchlings as they emerge. Gnatcatchers seem to be particularly susceptible, with reports of 100 percent parasitism of all gnatcatcher nests in surveyed areas.

This led to quite the spirited debate. My sister-in-law argued for scaring off the gnatcatchers so the cowbird chicks would starve, being offended by the idea that the cowbirds were parasites. I argued instead for leaving well enough alone, because at least this way the gnatcatcher eggs wouldn’t be a complete waste. Besides, being very much unlike my own family, I could appreciate the cowbird chick’s situation. We left that weekend with the nest intact, and I suspect that I might see one of the cowbirds the next time I visit, inexplicably relieved that we left it alone. And so it goes.

Tales From The Ranch

One of the main draws of my in-laws’ ranch is the spectacular view of the Brazos River valley, especially from one particular rock known as “Lookout Point”. As I keep telling Dave Hutchinson, the stories about Texas being completely flat are untrue even outside of the Hill Country near Austin or the Pecos Mountains. It’s just that the sky overwhelms everything else. In that case, Texas is exactly like Australia. And just think: 350 million years ago, this was all shallow seabed.

Lookout Point

Mesa from Lookout Point

Cactus at Lookout Point

Brazos River, facing south

Tales From The Ranch

As background, my father-in-law bought The Ranch back in the early Seventies, when land prices were ridiculously cheap in West Texas. The locale had been used quite a bit over the last century, and not just as farmland or cattle ranch: since the local rocks are all Pennsylvanian sandstones and limestones, one area was the source for much of the distinct limestone of the Palo Pinto County Courthouse. Naturally, some previous visitors took from the ranch, and others left behind:

Beer Truck

In my never-ending efforts to drive the Czarina a little more-silver-haired than I have already, I suggested that we haul this truck home, fix it up, and use it as the official Triffid Ranch truck. All it needs is a set of new tires and maybe a few spots of WD-40 before it’s streetlegal, right?

Tales from the Ranch

Several big intrusions from real life get in the way, so it’s time for a bit of backstory. The Czarina’s family owns a rather large ranch in West Texas, alongside the Brazos River, and it’s become quite the playground for the extended clan. Her parents come out regularly to relax when their own workday routines start to tear them down. The kids and the grandkids (with possible great-grandkids very soon) come out to fish, race all-terrain vehicles, and wonder “Hey, what the hell is Paul doing this time?” And me, I come out there to study.

In any case, I’ve spent the last ten years doing my best to convince my UK friend Dave Hutchinson is nothing but an elaborate set for Peter Jackson’s planned remake of The Valley of Gwangi. If only: I may be joshing him, but it’s odd enough out here as it is. For a moment, though, I’ll spare him the horror of what my adoptive land is like, and settle for a few moments of beauty.

Unknown wildflower

Unknown wildflower 2

Unknown wildflower 3

Very, VERY bad ideas

For those unfamiliar with The Pitcher Plant Project, I heartily recommend spending a few hours going through the blog . Of particular note, though, is taking a look at The Sarracenia Sink, because I’ve been suggesting to the Czarina that I could up the ante a bit. Many of my neighbors are renovating bathrooms and kitchens, which means that a lot of perfectly serviceable toilets are left out front in time for Large Trash Day. I figure that it’s just a matter of sealing up the bottom, filling both bowl and tank with Sarracenia soil mix, planting a nice collection of pitcher plants and sundews, and bringing it to the next Triffid Ranch show. Not only is it a perfect example of classic Scottish frugality to make the world a better place, but Mother Scotland even gave me a perfect name for the arrangement: “The Bog Garden”. All it would need is an Ewan MacGregor action figure in it, and it would be perfect.

The only problem with this plan lies with the Czarina. See, her family is Welsh, not Scot, so she doesn’t agree that this is a brilliant plan. In fact, she stopped rolling her eyes or jabbing me with her elbows when we drive by an abandoned toilet and I suggest upcycling it. She only had one thing to say if I continued on this line of inquiry. I didn’t exactly hear what she was planning to do to my neck after she ripped my head off, but based on her tone, I’m going to have to surprise her with the end results.