A new year and a new theme

I won’t remind you how capricious I am, especially with regards to this blog’s design.

I launched xenogere at the end of 2002 and posted my first entry in early 2003 (that two-month span consisted of setting it up and tinkering with it until I liked it).  Since that time, I’ve changed the core engine once and the design three times.

Now I’m going to change it a fourth time.  The design, I mean.

I really like this theme, like the look and feel of xenogere as it stands right now.

But I’m never happy with such things for long.

As with the previous theme changes, you can expect this one to be traumatic dramatic.  Things will be quite different, as has been the case with previous transitions of this nature.

However, I also feel this change is worthwhile.  The new theme is quite different yet superior in many ways.  I’ll admit it’s the difference I enjoy most about this process…

A great deal of my recent search for a new theme stems entirely from images: I want to expand the content area so I can increase the default image size.  Right now images can be no larger than 500×500 pixels.  For a great many reasons, I wish to utilize 600×600 pixels instead.

The new theme will allow me to do that by increasing the overall fixed width of the blog.  Sure, I could code those changes into this version, but what would be the fun in that?

So over the course of the next several days—precisely when I can’t say with certainty—xenogere will once again undergo a metamorphosis.

Hopefully this update won’t alarm or upset anyone.  At least not too much.

Quality time

The Kids provide endless entertainment and companionship.  Unfortunately, being cats, they don’t always provide the best photographic opportunities.  I can’t tell them to sit and stay while I setup a prime shot.  I can’t let them run about the yard while I capture some magic moments.  In truth, they keep me on my toes when it comes to photographing them.

When we’re playing, it’s near impossible to snap photos while keeping them engaged.  I try, though.  What I wind up with most often are pictures of empty spaces, unrecognizable blurs, my own feet or hands, a wall or the ceiling, furniture, and anything else except cats.  Such is the curse of holding a toy with one hand as I hold the camera out and snap photos with the other.

When they’re playing on their own, I can sometimes get up and grab the camera for some snapshots.  Usually, however, they react to my movement by stopping what they’re doing and running to me for attention or a bit of personal play.  I try to keep the camera nearby for such moments, but that’s not always possible (busy doing chores or eating dinner are two examples that come to mind).

There is only one time when taking photos is simple: when they’re still (sleeping, grooming, etc.).

The next best opportunity is quality time.

Quality time for us happens as often as possible.  It’s nothing more complicated than me sitting or lying on the floor.  It draws them in like flies to honey.

We play.  We show love toward each other.  We focus on the pleasure of just being with one another.

But that represents another challenge.  It’s our quality time; I’m focused on them and they’re focused on me, so photography is nothing more than a byproduct when possible.

That there are seven of them also means my hands are full with making sure each of them receives their due affection.

Nevertheless, I find the happenstance photos from such moments often capture the wild spirits and loving souls that swim within each of these fur persons.

A close-up of Kazon as he looks at me (2008_12_27_003708)

Kazon.  What can I say?  He’s my baby.  When he realizes I’m occupying him surreptitiously in hopes of getting a picture worth the effort, he stops and looks at me with the adoration of a child.  He needs his love, his affection.  And he is a child, a big tomcat in stature with the mind of a juvenile who is always needy, always demanding of personal attention.

A close-up of Kako as she looks out the window (2008_12_27_003718)

Kako.  As independent as she is wanting of Daddy’s time, she proffers a mix of disdain and greed.  Sometimes I can’t get her off my shoulders long enough to breath; other times she smacks me around and lets me know I’m invading her personal space.  I love the bitch that dwells within this feline.  She is both distant and close all at once, a dichotomy that defines the spirit of all cats.

Larenti lying on the bed looking out the windows (2008_12_27_003720)

Larenti.  He is fear made flesh.  I always knew he was abused, for his fear of hands and sudden movements makes this clear.  Yet as much as he wants to engage the other felines, he fears them as much as he fears humans.  A bit of play quickly turns to panic, and a moment on my lap in purring contentment becomes fleeing apprehension when one of the other kids joins us and gets too close, rests against him, gets too near his personal space.  Ah, but he loves his time with me as much as he loves the rest of The Kids.  For a young cat, he still has time to realize the potential of the life I’ve given him.

A close-up of Vazra as he looks out the window (2008_12_27_003723)

Vazra.  He lives up to his name.  Simultaneously amiable and demanding, he is a true king of felines.  He demands things go his way, he demands no one else do what he does, and he demands everyone acquiesce to his needs and wants.  His physical presence, as beautiful as it is, represents a mere shadow of his personality, a big and bold being who loves with the utmost compassion as much as he expects me to answer his every demand.  He’s a mirror of my own soul…

A close-up of al-Zill as he looks at the camera (2008_12_27_003735)

al-Zill.  The neurological damage he suffered before I rescued him ensures he’s a special case in the xenogere homestead.  Affectionate with a purr that can shake dishes off the table, he’s also a child at heart who remains at odds with the disconnect between his brain and his body.  But how he loves the other cats!  As much as he loves me, I might add.  Watching him lie with Grendel as he grooms his older stepbrother warms my heart as much as it does when he pushes his way under the covers at night, when he races to claim my lap, when he follows me everywhere while continually rubbing against me, and when he gives me kisses—sometimes incessantly to the point of pain.

A close-up of Grendel as he looks at me (2008_12_27_003745)

Grendel.  A lifetime of ailments continues to take a toll on this alpha male.  He is Sponge, the cat who can never get enough petting, who can never spend enough time with me (although Kazon gives him a run for his money in that regard).  And while Grendel remains the chief of the watch, I myself lament seeing him weaken, seeing the tremors that plague him all the time now, seeing a great predator reduced to wisps of what once was.  He looks at me with frustration in this photo because I wanted him to pause long enough for a picture, yet I could only demand so much from him before I wept and held him and spoke to him with the utmost adoration.  His time is limited, something obvious by the continued downhill slide of his body.  So many memories wrapped up in this one cat whose flesh can no longer support the soul that made him master of our domain…

Although I tried also to grab a few pictures of Loki, all of them turned out as so much garbage.  He beat me profusely during this episode of quality time.  He ran about, punched me around, argued with me, and basically left me not one opportunity to immortalize his godliness within the digital confines of a photograph.  There will be other times, sure, but I’m sorely disappointed with myself for not being better prepared for his rambunctious and assaulting interaction with me.  For all the abuse I’ve taken from him over the years, I should have known better.


Three times in ten days I’ve seen a falcon hunting in the same area at White Rock Lake.  Between the Bath House Cultural Center and the north banks of the Sunset Bay confluence rests an area of sparse woods to the south, dense woodlands to the north, and a vast field of wild grasses and flowers sloping down toward the water.  The lake splashes happily to the west in view of the Peninsula neighborhood to the east.

Two walking trails run parallel and define the east and west boundaries of this field.  I’ve walked those trails many times, and I’ve walked through the field more often than I can remember.  It’s in this place that I’ve seen much of nature’s bounty, from innumerable bird species to wildflowers galore to reptiles and amphibians that would frighten most people, and that doesn’t include some of the lake’s various mammalian population ranging from skunks to rabbits and from minks to coyotes.

And I’ve now concluded this field marks the hunting territory of a male American kestrel (Falco sparverius).  I’ve seen him there on three separate occasions but always at the same time of day: mid-morning to early afternoon.

Our first encounter offered little in the way of photographic opportunities.  I spotted him as I walked toward Sunset Bay from the north (toward where the Dreyfuss Club once stood).  That put the low winter sun right in my eye—and in the lens.  I tried to snap a few pictures, though, with no success.  The best I captured proffered silhouettes of shadow that might as well have been a mockingbird.

Our second encounter mirrored the first in that I had walked all the way to Mockingbird from Sunset Bay and returned via the same path.  I spotted the kestrel perched atop the phone wires running alongside the field.  Oh, I tried to be sneaky and not put my gaze on him too directly, for I’m no fool in such matters: wildlife can tolerate humans better when they think you’re not looking right at them.  I veered off the path snapping photos as I marched quite loudly through dry autumnal ground cover.

A male American kestrel (Falco sparverius) perched on a wire (2008_12_25_003256)

He watched me.  That much I could tell.  And he watched me closely.  Yet enough activity took place throughout the area to keep him from primarly focusing on me.  Well, almost.

A male American kestrel (Falco sparverius) perched on a wire (2008_12_25_003262)

I approached while not looking at him except through the viewfinder.  Something about not seeing the forward-facing eyes of a predator looking right at you does wonders with creatures in the wild.  If only I had side-facing eyes like prey animals…  But I digress.

Too close for his comfort and forced to steer my body right at him because of the sun, the game was over as soon as I paused and turned.

A male American kestrel (Falco sparverius) in flight (2008_12_25_003263)

He vanished beyond the bare treetops and I left feeling an opportunity had been lost.

Our third encounter mimicked the second in that I walked south toward Sunset Bay, and that time I decided to be less surreptitious in my attempt to photograph the predator.  I at first didn’t realize he was there likely because he was hunting.  Only after I walked through the thin forest atop the Dreyfuss Club hill did I remember the falcon, and it was then I turned and walked down toward the lake to see if I could find him.

It didn’t take long.  As soon as I reached the clearing, I saw a bird land atop a tree near the shore, a bird too large to be common.  (Let me add I don’t think any wildlife is mundane no matter how ubiquitous it is.  That’s why I take photos of everything I see; no matter how many times I’ve seen it, all of nature fascinates me as though I were a child seeing it for the first time.)

A male American kestrel (Falco sparverius) perched in a treetop (2008_12_28_004089)

That image seemed arbitrary, nothing short of the first grasp at an ethereal ghost.  It would serve me no purpose other than to identify later what I had seen—assuming I never got closer.

But I did get closer.  And that was not a welcome turn of events so far as this kestrel was concerned.

He flitted into the still air and moved away, out over the field, and I feared I had missed my opportunity.  Even at great distance, however, he offered me something I hadn’t imagined: a brief hover-hunt example.

A male American kestrel (Falco sparverius) hovering above a field (2008_12_28_004092)
A male American kestrel (Falco sparverius) hovering above a field (2008_12_28_004093)
A male American kestrel (Falco sparverius) hovering above a field (2008_12_28_004095)

This species prefers the perch-and-attack method of hunting, but they also utilize the hover-hunt approach when they deem it necessary.  That usually means no agreeable perch can be found and/or winds are such that thermals can be utilized to preserve strength while hovering.

This bout lasted only a minute, maybe less, after which the bird dove into the tall dry grasses.  My approach from downhill meant he vanished.  I feared I’d lost him.

But not so.

As quickly as he disappeared, he climbed back into the air and landed on the phone wires.  And he was quite near where I started this pursuit.  Whatever he thought he was hunting on the ground apparently offered nothing of interest once he had it in his talons.

A male American kestrel (Falco sparverius) perched on a wire (2008_12_28_004127)

My climb back up the hill no doubt resembled a madman chasing headlights as they speed across a wall in front of turning cars.  First this way then that, first uphill then downhill.  What bizarre spectacle I presented to others…

I didn’t care, though.  I wanted a closer look at this beautiful creature, and pictures be damned!  (As I explained to Jenny today, there are times when diving into an encounter and witnessing it sans other concerns means a great deal more than capturing that one image for which publishers do battle.)

I no sooner got within my comfort distance (where I thought I could take a respectable photo given the lens I had on the camera) when I found myself witness to an increasingly familiar sight.

A male American kestrel (Falco sparverius) in flight (2008_12_28_004130)

This bird knew one thing above all others: how to frustrate and tire me.  There I stood at the top of the field and the doggone falcon made a swift retreat back to the bottom, back to the shore, back to where I had first seen it.

So off I went, stumbling through the expanse of uneven ground sloping down toward the lake, and I laughed at myself for what I knew must be the kestrel’s internal joke.  The hill didn’t bother him, didn’t pose any problem for his travels, yet the up-and-down coupled with the down-and-up for a simple biped like me turned it into a battle against fatigue and strain.  How long would I endure this before giving up?

Back to the same tree where it all started, I again tried to act disinterested and unaware.  The kestrel watched me closely even as he continued scanning his range for prey.

A male American kestrel (Falco sparverius) perched in a treetop (2008_12_28_004149)

As soon as I felt I had reached a spot where I could really capture its essence, off it went.  Uphill.  Away.  Easily.  And quickly.

I gave up.  I felt certain he laughed his tail feathers off when as he watched me walk away…

— — — — — — — — — —


[1] I use my 55-250mm (35mm: 88-400mm) telephoto zoom lens when I go for arbitrary walks.  The ability to capture distant objects without giving up wider views appeals to my random nature.  But the versatility of the zoom feature means I sacrifice quality.  A true static telephoto lens would serve me better in such cases.

[2] Although I realize I need further investment in this camera, finances and the economic turmoil of the day means I also realize I should stay where I am for now.  I’ve spent a great deal of money on The Kids recently for medical care.  The increased cost of food and sundries also diminished whatever flexibility I might have had.  Nevertheless, at some point I know I need to acquire a better lens for distance shots.  Consider it on the wish list of things not to be realized for some time to come.

[3] Shame on me for not having a lens hood.  We’re not talking about a great expense here, right?  Nope.  Yet I’ve not purchased this inexpensive augmentation for some bizarre reason even I cannot fathom.  For the price of a tank of gas—if that much—I could solve a great deal of the flair and perpendicular light source problems I have.  Some of the photos above were cropped and processed in order to remove my stupid primate paw from the edge of the picture where I rested my hand against the end of the lens in order to block sunlight hitting it from the side.  I can be so daft sometimes…

The black wolf of Juneau

This touched me deeply for many reasons: The black wolf of Juneau is back for the winter:

JUNEAU, Alaska – He lets out a piercing howl that slowly penetrates your chest. To human ears, it’s the sound of being alone. And the creature who made the cry probably is.

The locals call him Romeo. He’s a black wolf without a pack, a wild canine who’s often seen patrolling Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier, the state capital’s signature recreation area.

Romeo baffles area biologists and naturalists with his refusal to find a pack or a mate, choosing instead to return each winter, clearly at ease with humans walking within a few hundred yards.

The story is more complicated than that.  And more profound, more touching, more mysterious.

Views from the lake

White Rock Lake can be a marvelous and diverse place.  Each passing season brings a new dress to be placed on this urban refuge, and nature does enjoy putting on her finest at every opportunity.

A winter sunset viewed from Sunset Bay at White Rock Lake (20080119_01454)

A winter sunset viewed from Sunset Bay.  With temperatures well below freezing and a gusty wind blowing from the north, I hardly maintained control of my fingers.  They felt like so much cold clay fumbling with the camera.

The floodplain after spring thunderstorms (20080412_03172)

The floodplain after spring thunderstorms.  The lake and the creeks from which it draws sustenance overflowed their banks following torrential rains that deluged the area.  The verdant life of the season made the surreal scene all the more majestic and divine.

A bench in the shade of a tree with the lake stretching out before it (20080518_05492)

A bench facing the lake with summer pouring down with unrelenting heat.  The oppressive humidity coupled with temperatures approaching the century mark begged for a tad of refreshing shade in which to shelter.  Finding a bench on the front row of the lake’s shore made it inviting as though made of ice.

Trees dressed in gold and yellow and orange as autumn takes over the lake (157_5753_p)

Autumn paints the woodlands with gold.  This particular stretch of trees covers both the floodplain to the left and the hills to the right.  Amber, yellow and orange reign in this area betwixt the heat of summer and cold of winter.  A dash of sunshine adds the final piece to the puzzle.

Trees and a footbridge spanning a creek find themselves cloaked with snow (127_2771)

Winter blankets the lake with snow.  My favorite footbridge, a creaking, splintered wooden structure draped over a creek, finds itself wearing all white as a powerful snowstorm leaves its mark on the world.

A sunset of yellows and reds and oranges paints the sky above the lake with downtown Dallas nestled into the background (165_6567)

A rejuvenating spring sunset.  The shore beneath my feet, the lake stretching out toward the west, and downtown Dallas nestled quietly on the horizon’s left as clouds help the sun paint an unforgettable backdrop in the sky.