West Nile Virus and Blue Jays

West Nile Virus VictimThe most common fatalities of the West Nile Virus are not humans, but birds. All too often since the virus entered the United States whole flocks of corvids have been eviscerated.

This Blue Jay–from our back yard–died from West Nile Virus two months ago. Most of our ten strong scold, the collective noun used for a group of Blue Jays, died this summer from the disease. Those who did not die were driven off by a stronger, younger scold of jays, only to catch the disease and then die.

The symptoms of West Nile Virus in Jays and other Corvids are such:

Birds do not usually show signs of infection until the last stage of the disease, which is encephalitis or inflammation of the brain. An infected bird may appear drowsy, be unable to fly or walk properly; it may even have problems standing upright

Further, Blue Jays are known to be able to fly while very sick if they start from high in a tree, but cannot fly off from the ground, appear dazed and confused. One neighbor reported a bird falling dead right out of the sky.

Indeed, we have very few Blue Jays left.

This is sad, they are fun birds with big, inquisitive characters. We named most of them, got to know them well. We fed them every day. They knew our patterns and would squawk at us or chatter with us when they were hungry or just wanted to show off.

Jays are my favorite birds. One of the first encounters I ever had with a bird was with a Mexican Jay in Big Bend National Park. I spent hours driving across the Valley this spring looking for the elusive Brown Jay. The raucous calls and shenanigans of Green Jays are impossible to beat once you’ve seen them, looking as they do like a Blue and Green Groucho Marx:
Green Jay (Cyanocorax yncas)
And at Yosemite I saw a Steller’s Jay for the first time. A true high altitude beauty.

Now, here in our yard there are no more birds, except for the ugly and over-proliferating White-winged Dove to take the old family’s place. A few Jays linger, but they don’t know us and we don’t know them yet. Hopefully the disease will pass with the coming of fall and cooler weather. Until then, I won’t be investing in the habits of our back yard friends.

The Heat

Austin via South CongressThis week it’s been solidly above 100* every day. It’s the first week of September. The worst week in central Texas if you ask me. The anticipation for the inevitable cold front has been building since the first week of August. The front normally arrives second or third week of September, but until it does it’s like a fever-pitch of expectations, hair trigger tempers and outright frustration.

For me there are always a few barely discernible hints that the heat will soon break. First, the humidity evaporates under a dry wind.


Second, in the mornings, no matter the temperature–this morning was 77*, for example–there is a slight breeze, cooler because it lacks the humidity of high summer, even if the afternoon heat is withering as today it most certainly will be.


Lastly, the Earth wobbles on its axis. That’s what creates the seasons. And with that wobble comes a change in the color and clarity of the light.

Not yet.

So, I wait. Today it will be 106*. That’s hot for any month, but for early September it’s almost unbearable.

Sunday Zen

Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris)Many of you will remember the story I wrote for Texas Monthly a few months ago about birds. In it I recounted the first time I ever saw the Holy Grail of Texas Birds: the Painted Bunting. This occurred in May of 2010. I was not yet forty years old and this was the first time I had ever seen one.

A month ago a listserve I participate in about Texas’ state parks was atwitter with multiple sightings of Painted Buntings in the Hill Country, many of them in ex-urban places like Helotes and Leander, semi-urban and not your typical haunts for these astonishingly colorful birds. That said, it’s been an exceptional year for birds in my backyard, as I have identified and photographed over thirty individual species. A few weeks ago a juvenile painted bunting–they are mostly green and yellow–even wandered into my very urban yard in Austin. A week after that a photographer wrote in that he had seen almost half a dozen of them in one two hour period in Pedernales Falls State Park, about an hour west of Austin. That was it!

The next weekend my Father and went to Pedernales but only saw one Bunting from afar. (We did see the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler, which was very cool.) Dad wasn’t feeling terribly well and wasn’t really that into it, so we left early. I told the Brunette upon arriving home that her and I were going the next weekend and also that Dad and I had heard dozens of them in the trees, but, the problem is, the females are greenish-yellow and tend to blend in to the cover.

So, last Sunday rolls around and the Brunette and I get up at the crack of dawn. We drive out to Pedernales Falls State Park with high hopes. It was unseasonably cool–and very welcoming. It was about 62* degrees and there was no wind. Perfect weather!

Not five minutes into the park we saw one! (He’s the one photographed above.) And then, true to the photographers claims, down by the river we saw half a dozen more (here and here). We also saw Summer Tanagers and a Pyrrhuloxia (no photo of him). But, to think after forty years I only saw one and then more than half a dozen in one day? Great news, right?

Not so fast. The birds are being concentrated, such as they are, due to the extensive droughts in Texas and the fires. I’ve had odd vagrants fly into my yard like a Gray Catbird and an Ovenbird. Many Robins are still hanging around when they should be long gone. Clear signs of population pressure, mostly because we have a bird feeder, bath and suet in the yard. There is a very real danger of fewer birds in years to come as they compete for scarce resources, which is a shame. Regardless, the Painted Bunting is a magnificent bird and it’s your Sunday Zen.

A Timeless Question, Finally Answered

Why Did The Chicken Cross The RoadIt is a question which has haunted mankind since the first road was built and poultry was domesticated: why did the chicken cross the road?

This morning at approximately 9:53 am, central daylight savings time Bernadette, a Central Austin Rhode Island Red, crossed from her coop on the north side of North Loop Road to Highland Plaza. Frenzied text messages and cell phone calls bounced off towers and clogged communication networks all over Austin this morning. But our intrepid reporter, Sean Paul Kelley, was on the scene first for this unprecedented opportunity. Finally “the” question would be answered.

“Bernadette, millions and billions of humans want to know, ‘why did you do it?’”

“Why, the coffee, of course! Especially the Sumatran dark blend here at Epoch,” she replied.

“Coffee,” asked Mr. Kelley, a bit perplexed. “Such a prosaic answer.”

“What do I look like,” she said, “a chicken from one of those fancy New York City salons? Do I look like an Ayn Rand acolyte? Or a philosopher? I may be a Rhode Island Red,” she added, “but I got shipped down here when I was just an egg. It was an accident I even managed to peck my way out of the shell. And besides, have you seen the size of a chicken’s brain? Come to think of it,” she said, pecking at a small bug in the asphalt, “my brain’s probably a bit larger than Rand’s but still, after worrying about foraging, laying eggs and running away from the local cats, coffee is about all the mental bandwidth I have left for.

“Bernadette,” Mr. Kelley shouted through the crowd of star struck onlookers and well wishers, “care to comment about which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

“No one likes a smart-ass,” she clucked.

Cogito Ero Sum

Sean Paul conducted a once in a lifetime interview with Jesus Reyes this afternoon at a local Austin coffee shop to determine whether he really exists:

“Reyes, my friends all want to know, do you really exist? They believe you are simply a manifestation of my Id.”

“Don’t you just wish I were said manifestation!” Reyes replied, bleary eyed and tequila sodden. He really needed the coffee.

“Reyes, to the point: do you exist or not?” Sean Paul asked.

“Well, we’re talking right now, aren’t we. Isn’t that proof enough?”

The Case Against Texas in The BCS

The Texas Longhorns won against the Nebraska Cornhuskers yesterday. I confess, I was rooting for the Huskers in the hopes it would throw the whole BCS scheme into chaos. I nearly got my wish. With only seconds left, and Texas behind, an oblivious UT quarterback Colt McCoy almost lost the game through time mismanagement. After the play it appeared as if time had run out and Nebraska had pulled off an incredible upset.

The play was reviewed and one second was put back on the clock. Enough for Texas to score a game winning field goal.

The results of the game–McCoy’s anemic play, Texas’ terrible offense, and Nebraska’s intensely smart defensive play the entire game–reinforce my year long claim that Texas is–and has been–overrated. And I’ve been skewered by my friends here in Austin for that. Such are the wages of fandom, I guess.

The real game yesterday was between Florida and Alabama. Alabama had the toughest schedule of the year, beating a total of five ranked teams. (Florida was overrated as well. As was Tebow, although the media loves to fawn over his incessant PDRs.) Florida only beat one ranked team all season (#4 LSU). Although the Gators destroyed both Troy (56-6) and Florida International (62-3). Not to mention Charleston Southern (62-3). Anyone could look good in Heisman rankings running up scores like that. And Tebow did, until he met the Crimson Tide.

And what a season the Crimson Tide has had.

Week one they dispatched #7 ranked Virginia. A few weeks later they beat #20 ranked Mississippi. The next week they beat #22 South Carolina. Two weeks after that they beat #9 LSU. And finally, last night they meticulously beat #1 ranked Florida. There is no question that Alabama deserves to play for the national championship. But Texas?

Texas may have beaten three ranked teams this season: one more than both TCU and Cincinnati. But the weakness of their schedule this year is matched by TCU’s. And, with Cincinnati’s win yesterday over Pittsburgh last night I think there is a stronger case to be made for Cincinnati playing Alabama.

Will any of this happen? Doubtful. Texas has a huge and lucrative program and spends inordinate amounts of money on it. Texas is also a ratings getting. Much more than Cincinnati or TCU.

I wish Texas had lost. Not because I dislike the Horns, but because I detest the BCS. And a Texas loss would have thrown the BCS into chaos. And made the case for a playoff even stronger.

I’ll certainly be rooting for Texas to beat Alabama in the national championship game. Everyone loves an underdog. But still, the season would be better if there were a playoff series.

If a playoff is good enough for the downstream divisions in college football then it is good enough for all of college football.

Alas, we’ll have to wait another year.

A True Story; Or When My Little Sister Renounced Her Faith At Thanksgiving Dinner

Thanksgiving“We’ve renounced Catholicism,” said my little sister, arms around my nieces. The family, congregating for Thanksgiving Dinner, was astonished. Used to outbursts like this from my little sister, this one surprised us all. And she was serious.

My mom just shook her head back and forth.

Her cousin, the current patriarch of the family put his head in his hands.

“Cool,” said his renegade quasi-reformed hippy wife. “It’s all downhill with Benedict anyway.”

My nieces both smiled. The youngest, Francesca, sat up straight and said proudly, “we’re Pastafarians now.”

“You’re devoted to the God of noodles now?” I asked her.

“No,” said my sister, “Rastafarian.”

“That makes me feel sooo much better,” said my bewildered mom.

“Mom,” she said in a defensive tone, “Rastafarians believe in the Trinity. And that god, whom we call Jah, will provide.”

Our ninety year-old matriarch chimed in.

“But what about Baptism for the girls?”

“Oh, we do that,” my sister said.

“What, with bong water?”

The Road To Perdition

Sean Paul shook his head. “How’d it come to this? Again!”

The tall drink o’ water grabbed his hand. “You’ll dance and you’ll like it,” she said.

Seamus grinned at Reyes and said, “she’s gwan ta bollix ‘em up isn’t she?”

Reyes sighed. “At this rate we’ll never see Mexico, and I need more tequila!”

On that note Sean Paul walked off down the road to perdition.

One Year Ago, Today

I know, I know. I haven’t been about much lately. I’m trying to put a book together. I think I’m over the shock of return. At least I think I am. I wake up every morning, write in my journal–it’s not a travel journal anymore I suppose–and then sit down at the computer to write–or organize. Battling through organizing a book is no easy task. There is much more to it than just simply sitting down and banging some shit out on a type-writer, erm, keyboard. I’m not staying out in suburbia any longer, either. Got my own place now. The cave, I like to call it, where I can blast the AC, hunker down with coffee and beat my digits to a pulp every morning.

After that I try and get out. Getting out is critical to my sanity these days. Before I left for Singapore I spent far too much time at home, on the internet, inside a book, etc. . . than was healthy. After a year away I’m fitter than I have been since I was 25. And so, freaks of nature, I’m actually running a bit. My back is still sketchy at times, but I don’t push it too far. But I resent having to ‘jog’ for my exercise. I resent not being able to walk out into my city and just live. I miss walking. I miss the ‘near misses’ and serendipity of the world. So, I go out and try to make some of my own. I smile. I chat people up. (They probably think I am crazy.) When I am at my favorite coffee shop and all the tables are full, I invite people who need a table to sit with me. No better way to make new friends. I’ve carried the world with me and in my own way I hope I’m making this a better place. “The little things,” I tell myself. And I am learning, like Iyer that “epiphanies, after all, are the easy part–it’s the acceptance of the everyday that comes hard.” Yes, Pico, it does. But I haven’t given up.

Every now and then a thought pops into my head, “maybe you ought to get a real job.” I explore the thought. “Why should I?” The answer: “Maybe to buy a new car? Get a nicer place. Some flashy new clothes?”

Doesn’t take long, does it? All those old messages, same habits. I’m resisting. Although, I do need new clothes. They are all so huge on me. Sometimes it looks like I am wearing a burka. (And I’m also fleeing down to Mexico for two weeks, also.) Funny, a year ago today I wrote this:

The sun shines all morning.

But then, the barometer plummets, all motion, movement is sucked from the air.

The wind stops.

All is still but the clouds above swirl, growing dark, angry as the humidity rises. Air and water congeal like gelatin or melted cellophane.

The clouds grow darker yet, while sweat glistens at your temples, behind your ears, dripping down your forehead. Then, and only after heat and humidity enervate everyone and everything around you does the rain start.

Only a few drops at first sound off on the eaves and canopies across the city but slowly, remorselessly the sound builds like a crescendo.

Alas, one is always caught without an umbrella: wet, sweaty, humid and hot.

After what seems like forever the rain dissipates. The winds kick up again, sending the showers south, or east, or west or north and soon the sun is shining through heavy, tropical clouds, shining as it ever was, as if nothing had ever happened.

We could use the rain here. Couldn’t we?

Fighting The Good Fight, No More

I’ve given up fighting the whole, “I refuse to Twitter thing.” I created an account and will be doing so from here on out. It seems a pointless thing, for the most part and most of the time. That being said, I had a long conversation with a guy who runs an SEO/internet advertising shop here in Austin. His reasons for doing so–twittering–were compelling. The reasons he gave me for doing so, at the time, seemed to be as well. We’ll see.

Austin culture is so extremely hyper-connected, but so disconnected from reality sometimes I have to laugh.

But I relent all the same.