Cold bug

Nights below freezing.  Days not warm.  Resting in perpetual shade.  Yet still alive.

Pulling out of my garage around 5:30 the other morning, I immediately noticed something.  Something large.  Something large enough to catch my attention in the mirror before I could see it directly.  It hung on the wall outside the garage door.

I stopped as I reversed the car, then I rolled down the passenger window for a non-tinted look.  A bug.  A true bug, not just an insect.  A rather sizable critter, too: about 40mm/1.5in in length.

Certainly it’s dead, I thought, frozen from the snow and cold and lack of sunlight.  I’ll check it when I get back.  And so I did, though I waited until daylight gave me some ability to capture a few photos.

A leaf-footed bug (Acanthocephala declivis) hanging on the outside wall (2009_12_27_047525)

A leaf-footed bug (Acanthocephala declivis).  I grabbed a ruler and measured it, surprised at its size given reference material that stated a 25mm-30mm length.  Sure enough, it sailed beyond the paltry guides and landed at a healthy Texas-sized measurement.

A leaf-footed bug (Acanthocephala declivis) hanging on the outside wall (2009_12_27_047529)

It never moved as I slipped and slid on ice trying to get some photos of it.  Yep, it’s dead alright.

I reached out and touched it.  It immediately extended its antennae and shuffled its feet.  Um, OK, not so dead after all.

A leaf-footed bug (Acanthocephala declivis) hanging on the outside wall (2009_12_27_047528)

Given hard freezes each night, I assumed it had only just crawled up the wall and in fact would die the next night.  What have we been taught about assumptions?

It’s now four days after I discovered it.  Not only is the bug in the same general area, but it’s still alive—albeit sluggish, especially early before temperatures warm above freezing.

A leaf-footed bug (Acanthocephala declivis) hanging on the outside wall (2009_12_27_047518)

It must be at the end of its life, already mated or too late to mate, sitting in the cold waiting for darkness to take it.

Its longevity on the wall gives me a sense of familiarity, a kinship of sorts.  I check it each day, if not several times per day, and each time I look it has moved to a slightly different position, sometimes with antennae out and sometimes with them retracted, folded as it were alongside the front of its body.

Nothing about insects in winter surprises me.  In fact, our quirky weather makes it possible for all sorts of surprising critters to make appearances when it seems unwise or unhealthy for them to do so.  River cooters bathing on logs when it’s freezing?  Yep, as long as the sun’s out.  Flies and beetles running about when the wind blows cold?  Yep, as long as the air is warm enough or there’s plenty of sunshine to bathe in.

Yet this one surprises me.  It never gets sun in its position.  That said, it’s right there, right now, still kickin’ and still hangin’ on.

On the road

Abstract of small highway leading through trees (213_1360)

There lies across the landscape a small highway, a road just two lanes wide with space enough on each side for cars rolling along in single file.  A tiny road stretched like ribbon over hills and through woodlands carries visitors across East Texas in endless processions.  I know it all too well.

Houses grow alongside the concrete path like clumps of moss.  They stand above the road on hillsides casting their gaze down on the world, and they strain to look up at passing cars from valleys where they seem dropped purely by accident.  The scene rushes by me silently, perhaps even hopelessly, and I wallow in the rare treat of seeing life stir behind masks of time and age.

Restless winds wander amongst the old houses with their old people.  For they’re all old there, I know.  Even the children—if they can be called that, I mean—even the children are born old.  Young people don’t exist in that place, only shorter adults treated like dolls by parents who wish to dress them so they might appear young.  But they aren’t.  I know it and they know it.

History lies like a blanket along that highway.  Even the air tastes of centuries.  Handmade clothes and rickety buildings fit like frames around perfect pictures taken when cameras were new.  It all seems so preserved, I think, ‘canned’ in the local vernacular of jellies and vegetables and fruits, like Mason jars tucked neatly away on shelves behind threadbare curtains and doors propped against walls which long ago separated from squeaky hinges.

I’m reminded by them, by the people as much as the hamlets stretched for miles…  I’m reminded of what we once had, what we’ve given up for advancement.  A terrible loss, that.  Too much sacrificed; too much given.

I drive through all those lives and still don’t see them clearly.  My view of it remains distorted.  My memories skew along plastic money called American Express and Visa, and it haunts me still that so much can’t be seen despite its evident nature.  Damn me for being a credit card caller in their world.

Only when I look back do I see the paintings I missed while hurrying through their little gallery of existence.  The beautiful canvases laid out with careful attention, and what did I do with them?  I drove right past seeing little and feeling less.

The sun dances upon the hood of my car as its face jumps from tree to tree.  It follows me, and it tells me to slow down.  I don’t listen.  It’s my loss.

Winter visitors – Part 4

They arrive as individuals and they arrive as flocks so large that they darken the sky.  Some move in silence and some shake the ground with thunderous flight.  They fill niches left empty by the southward flow of our summer residents.  They join year-round inhabitants and elbow their way up to the table.

They are winter visitors, guests in our city, migrants who arrive at White Rock Lake to spend the cold season in Dallas, a place where the word ‘cold’ only applies as an exception—and rarely in a way that compares to where they came from.

Northern shovelers (Anas clypeata) swimming in a lagoon (2009_12_20_045667)

Northern shovelers (Anas clypeata), a male in the foreground and a female in the background.  Unique ducks, what with that spatulate bill that looks like…well, it looks like a shovel.

A juvenile yellow-rumped warbler (a.k.a. myrtle warbler or Audubon’s warbler; Dendroica coronata) perched on a limb (2009_12_19_045040)

A juvenile yellow-rumped warbler (a.k.a. myrtle warbler or Audubon’s warbler; Dendroica coronata).  By spring these birds will put on a showy dress of mating plumage that can leave a man breathless.  Abundant in winter to the point of excess, their voices fill the air with sweet melodies that seem hardly comparable to their small size.

A golden-crowned kinglet (Regulus satrapa) perched in some branches holding a tiny insect in its beak (2009_12_20_046039)

A golden-crowned kinglet (Regulus satrapa) who grabbed a quick bite to eat before realizing I stood watching it.  Unlike their cousins the ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula), golden-crowned kinglets do not arrive in vast numbers and do not act so blatant in their foraging, so fearless in their encounters, so devil-may-care in their activities.  Finding them is more of a challenge.

A white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) hanging upside-down on a tree (2009_12_26_047202)

A white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis).  Yes, it hung upside-down on the side of a tree.  And yes, that’s a typical foraging position for them.  This individual left our photography session to go argue with a titmouse.  Amazingly, the titmouse lost.

A male ruddy duck (Oxyura jamaicensis) floating in the water (2009_12_26_047090)

A male ruddy duck (Oxyura jamaicensis).  Rarely seen on land because their legs are so far back on their bodies that it makes them awkward and uncomfortable, they sleep in the water, feed in the water, relax in the water…  Let’s just say this: I’ve never seen one on land.

A brown creeper (Certhia americana) looking for food (2009_12_26_047404)

My winter nemesis: the brown creeper (Certhia americana).  The size of a wren, silent, perfectly camouflaged for lurking about tree bark, and as the name implies, always creeping, always moving.  These birds catch my attention only with movement.  Unless they’re on the side of a tree where I get a profile view, they can be difficult to find and difficult to photograph.

A brown creeper (Certhia americana) hanging on the side of a tree (2009_12_20_046060)

And when I find one on the side of a tree like this, they don’t stay that way for long.  They pause only to investigate possible food, then they move on to the next crevice, the next shadow, the next limb.

I faced my death again

Twas little more than a year ago when I faced my death at the hands of a marauding armadillo.  Anguish rested in the deadlight of its eyes.  The scars from that encounter have never healed.  To this day I tremor at the thought of The Beast and how close I came to finding my end in that dark morning hour.

Since then I have witnessed the monsters ravaging gardens and greenery throughout the area in search of buried souls on which to dine, yet I’ve been unable to overcome the fright that keeps me from standing in their presence.

But the universe has a way of making us face our fear despite our best laid plans.  And so, at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge two weeks ago, I again stood on the precipice of horror, only this time it was in the light of day and no shadows could hide me from the ogre.

It began innocently enough: while I walked the Heron Flats Trail, a swamp rabbit scrambled for cover as I approached.  Something else remained, though, something viciously uprooting plants and sending wads of dirt flying through the air.  I trembled at the sight of it.  I felt I was reliving a nightmare.

A nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) digging in the ground (2009_12_13_044474)

I cowered on the opposite side of the clearing hoping to go unnoticed.  Still the behemoth approached, moving closer, sneaking betwixt and between plants that shielded it from direct view.

I needn’t see the whole of the specter to recognize the danger moving toward me, however.  Yes, we’d met before, this devil and I, and standing in the open left me no corners to duck behind, no trees to climb, no houses in which to seek shelter.  Nay, I knew even then that I must face the demon head-on lest it attack me from behind as I ran away.

A nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) digging in the ground (2009_12_13_044482)

I hunkered against thicket, my breathing shallow, my heart slamming against my chest.  A tear scoured my cheek.  Already I wept, afraid of the destruction taking shape before me.  The terror of terrors left a swath of devastation as it approached, tufts of grass thrown with little effort, wads of soil streaking through the sky, wildflower stems dismembered and left for dead.  I knew I would be next.

A nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) with its face in the ground (2009_12_13_044466)

Then I sneezed.  An unexpected sneeze, an uncontrolled declaration of my presence and position.  And in response the leviathan stood upright, its deadly front talons held together like Death’s own scythe, carnage still clinging to the face that just moments before had devoured yet another life.

A nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) sniffing the air (2009_12_13_044494)

I cried out.  Tears streamed down my face as I begged for mercy.  My quaking rattled me from head to toe.  I stared into the beasts eyes and it stared into mine.

In that moment I faced my death again.

A nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) walking through brush (2009_12_13_044510)

Much to my surprise, the grave digger did not leap through the air and rip me into bite-sized tasty morsels.  On the contrary, it returned to its search for prey, its digging and heaving, its unburying of that which was buried.

A nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) with its nose in the ground (2009_12_13_044519)

When finally it pushed its face into the earth to suck life from one more creature, I knew it was my chance.  I crawled away on all fours, scampering like a whipped dog, always looking over my shoulder to see if The Beast pursued me.

I reached my car and scrambled for the keys.  Clawing at the door, fumbling with the handle, finally making my way inside, I slumped into the seat and wallowed in abject fear.  The vehicle lurched with my shaking.

I don’t remember how long I stowed myself away in that locked car, glancing out the window, expecting to see The Beast coming toward me.  Easily it could topple the vehicle, rip away its metal sheath, drag me from its protection and back to the trail where it would devour my soul.  All I remember is the grip of dread, the inability to function, the want for a quick end.

— — — — — — — — — —


[1] All photos are of an adult nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus).

[2] Like the entry linked to at the beginning of this story, this post is meant in jest.  Armadillos are docile creatures.  As I mentioned in the comments on my entry from 2008, the only threat they pose is to your landscaping (though attempting to touch or handle one can be problematic as they can do damage with their claws, exceptionally powerful tools used for digging at high speed through surface material).

[3] I said in the cold snake post that this was the friendliest armadillo I’d ever met.  That’s true.  When the armadillo finally came to the edge of the trail, it nuzzled my foot aside so it could dig where I was standing.  Unfortunately its position rested inside the minimum focusing distance of the 400mm lens I was using.  That lens requires at least 1.8 meters/5.9 feet to focus on a subject.  With the armadillo at my feet, the end of the lens would have to be at eye level and the camera itself would have to be well above my head in order to get a photograph.  (Because of its nearness, I chose not to move around too much at that point lest I frighten the animal.)

[4] Though I really wanted clear photos of the critter, it never entered the trail.  Instead, it remained in the tall flora alongside the path.  Since the wildlife refuge is not meant for people but instead is meant for the security and health of native plants and animals, leaving the trail never occurred to me as an option.  (In my opinion, being at a refuge is being a guest in someone else’s home—namely that of plants and animals—hence as a guest I should have as little an impact as possible on the goings on.)  Also, my non-interference rule with nature kept me from trying to force the animal into the open.  It was a gift to see it, to watch it, to have it pushing me out of the way so it could feed, so it would have violated all I hold dear about nature for me to be rude and try to bend its behavior to my will.

[5] Armadillos are in fact covered by bony armor (more accurately, a layer of bone just below the skin).  This makes them difficult prey for other animals.

[6] Armadillos can move at surprising speeds when frightened, they can swim quite expertly, and they can even walk underwater for up to six minutes.  Another tactic armadillos will use to escape threats is digging a quick burrow, a process that happens so rapidly that predators have difficulty interfering with or stopping the escape.  It also leaves the armadillo’s tail moving about in the open while the critter digs, something that might serve as a diversion.  Note this individual lost a good chunk of its tail:

A nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) missing most of its tail (2009_12_13_044502)

That probably happened while it focused on digging and its pursuer tried to stop it.  If you follow the first link in this post, you can see how long their tail can be compared to their body size, so the individual here lost quite a bit of material before making good its escape.

[7] Despite looking like a giant roly-poly (or pill bug or doodle bug or whatever you like to call woodlice in the family Armadillidiidae [note the family name!]), most armadillos can’t roll into a ball for protection.  Only two of the twenty or so known species can do that: the southern three-banded armadillo (Tolypeutes matacus) and the Brazilian three-banded armadillo (Tolypeutes tricinctus), the latter of which likes to wait until it’s touched before it slams its armor shut (thought to be done in hope of frightening the attacking predator).  The ability to roll into a ball is limited in all other species by the number of bony plates they have.

So small a thing

A white Christmas.  Who would have guessed.  Hasn’t been one around these parts in 83 years (though we’ve certainly had other white days in all those winters, and we’ve had almost white Christmases too).

A creek winding through a snowy field (2009_12_25_046742)

Snow came horizontally all day yesterday, a lateral ice frenzy driven by fierce winds that caused blizzard conditions not too far west of the DFW metroplex.  But those same winds coupled with exceptionally dry air caused a good deal of sublimation, so by sunrise this morning a sizable chunk of the snow had already vanished.  A few hours later and it was all but gone except in those areas where sunshine never touched it.

Striations and dunes indicating wind-driven snow (2009_12_25_046770)

As is obvious by the striations and dunes in that photo, wind controlled the event, causing drifts, hills and valleys, scouring one side of the street in favor of pushing all the snow to the other side, and so on.  In places it hardly seemed any snow had fallen, but it had indeed fallen but had also been relocated before being allowed to settle for the night.

Deep snow on the bank of a creek (2009_12_25_046749)

All it took was a small obstacle, a small dip or rise in the terrain, and the snow built majestic patterns that made one think of a high mountaintop always drenched in ice.  Some of the photos I took today would make you wonder if I had visited Antarctica or Siberia.  Others look like paltry offerings from Old Man Winter who’d been too tired to make real snow.  And the dichotomies often rested next to each other with nothing more than a twig or tuft of grass making all the difference.

Snow in intricate patterns due to strong winds (2009_12_25_046779)

Many people laugh at Texans for all the hoopla that goes on regarding snow.  But those people don’t understand why it’s such a big deal for us.  It’s not that snow is alien and unheard of here.  No, this is Texas and we get all the weather you can imagine, from snow to hurricanes to heat well above the century mark to sandstorms to tornadoes to hail the size of grapefruits to…  Well, you get the point.

It’s not that we’ve never seen snow before or that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event here; it’s just that we’re more apt to get ice instead of snow.  The Gulf of Mexico gives us plenty of moisture to work with, yet our proximity to tropical climes tends to force wedges of hot air right through whatever cold air settles atop us.  Depending on how deep that warm air is and how far above the surface it is, we either get sleet or freezing rain, but the depth of cold air needed for snowfall usually doesn’t visit us that often, hence we get ice storms instead of snowstorms.  (Our next such ice event appears to be on tap for next Tuesday and Wednesday.)

Snow resting atop some leaves (2009_12_25_046890)

The other side of the coin stems from the radical shifts in our weather.  The longest freeze on record was in 1983, from December 18 to December 30.  White Rock Lake froze over—solid enough to walk on—as did other area lakes, and government and schools and nonessential businesses were shuttered forcefully to ensure homes could be heated.  That event is an exception, however, as we usually have hard freezes quickly followed by warmth.  Like today: well below freezing this morning with plenty of sunshine and comfortably above freezing this afternoon.  So snow often has a short lifespan here, another reason it’s celebrated.

A snowy scene (2009_12_25_046696)

As I walked around the lake this morning enjoying the vanishing snow, I rediscovered one of the hidden joys it offers: tracks.  I found quite a bit of activity etched in the white stuff, activity that showed life and death struggles, meandering searches for meals, quick escapes, and a litany of wildlife comings and goings.  The first such track I found was in a very surprising place, too.  More on those discoveries in later posts.