Gratuitous Post about Birds, Plants, and Wine

This has been a pretty good year for bird watching.  I’ve got a couple of painted buntings that visit fairly regularly.  These are generally one-time-a-year birds here – at least that’s my experience.

I also have a fairly substantial flock of European starlings.  Theirs is an interesting tale and instructive on the cautionary side.  The starlings were introduced to this continent in the 1870s by the American Acclimatization Society as part of a dubious project to bring each type of bird mentioned by Shakespeare to New York’s public parks.  They were successful, and then some.  Since their introduction, more than 200 million European Starlings have spread throughout the United States, Mexico, and Canada.  They may be responsible for the collapse of native species due to their aggressive nesting habits.


European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Today is one of the first clear days we’ve had in quite some time.  It seems the haze that’s been hanging around lately is caused by a dust cloud the size of the contiguous United States which has drifted over from the Sahara.  It’s a relief to see blue skies again.

I recently enjoyed a very nice bottle of Sancerre (Domaine J. Gueneau, 2013).  It reminded me of a Grüner Veltliner – which I really enjoy.  It went quite well with vegetarian chipotle burritos.



Sancerre – Domaine J. Gueneau, 2013

Last weekend, I planted an Australian Long-leaf Acacia.  I’ve decided to call her Adelaide, a nod to both the Australian city and my grandmother.  Its long tapered leaves are a nice contrast to the neighbor’s fig tree, the Japanese black pine, and the crepe myrtles that surround it.

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Long-Leaf Acacia (Acacia longifolia) – Adelaide

So here are the gratuitous plant photos – hope everybody has an enjoyable 4th of July!

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Bulbine; Roses; and Buddleia

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Wisteria Bloom

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Crepe Myrtles; Japanese Black Pine; and Pink Althea

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Morning Glory – Grandpa Ott – about to shut down for the summer

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Turks Cap and Holly Tree

Update –

My Black-Eyed Susan finally bloomed yesterday!

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Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and a Ghost Spider (Hibana velox)

And here’s a closer look at the edging…

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Edging – Norman Arch-Shaped Around the Elm Tree


It’s Fall!

Ah, September and Fall – my favourite time of the year.  Of course in Central Texas, that means lower ’90s, but I’ll take what I can get.  Today is exceptionally beautiful.  After Friday’s rain – between five and seven inches…woo hoo! and Saturday’s transition, today turned out to be clear and fine.  And I love September light; more golden and heavy dappled through the elm tree.

The humming birds are still around, but will probably take off in the next couple of weeks.  The blue jays are more active – and more screechy…another Fall sound.  More owl activity at night, too.

The garden is still thriving.  August wasn’t overly hot, so there’s not that droopy, exhausted look you sometimes get in September.  Here are some recent photos…

A gigantic spider web I found one morning – still amazed by the engineering feat.

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My newest tchotchke – a hanging glass sphere I got at The Natural Gardener.

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The morning glories are coming back to life.

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A new coleus.

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I put out my Fall garden decorations.  I love this scrap-metal scare crow – a tea light goes in its head.

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The black-eyed Susans still going strong.

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And the Turk’s Caps, too.

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So last week, I went hiking in the Barton Creek Greenbelt behind the house.  I still forget how lucky I am that I can just step out my back gate and be on the trail.  A bit like Bilbo Baggins.

It was one of those “Chamber of Commerce” weather days – amazing for mid-August – low 90s, a light wind from the north and no humidity at all.  You could smell the heat  – cedar.  There’s a great map you can get from the Save Our Springs Alliance Barton Creek Greenbelt Trail Map and Recreation Guide.

So this is what it looks like just a bit further down from the house.


About 2 miles along the trail, you come to this great vista.  I think the houses are in Lost Creek, but I’m not quite sure.  (I’m horrible with directions.)


Another picture from the same area – mostly scrub cedar here.


This is one of my favorite places on this hike.  The stream that made this must have been pretty substantial at one time.  I saw two deer back in the woods, but of course I wasn’t ‘camera ready.’

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This tree is about 5 miles in.  I really like the way this is shaped.


An interesting barbed-wire fence.


And then back home again – 10-mile roundtrip in about 2 hours, so not bad for an old man.  (At least Starflight didn’t have to come get me.)


Gardening Inspiration – China

It wasn’t intentional, but I found that several aspects of my garden were inspired by some of trips we’ve taken.  One of the most different from southwest Austin was our 2007 trip to China.  I really liked all the variations I found on Chinese Guardian Lions, Shishi, (aka Foo Dogs).  Here’s what we have on the deck…

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And here are a couple of the inspiration pieces…

Male Shishi - Forbidden City, Bejing, China 2007

Male Shishi – Forbidden City, Bejing, China 2007

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Female Shishi – Forbidden City, Bejing, China 2007

The other building I loved in Beijing was the Temple of Heaven.  The blue roof was amazing.

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Temple of Heaven – Beijing, China – 2007

And here’s what’s in the back yard (ok, this one is a stretch but it’s the blue element I was after).

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There was a park just northwest of the Forbidden City – Beihai Park  – that offer the first Buddhas we’d see all over China.  First mine…

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And the inspirations –

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Buddha Shrine, Beihai Park, Beijing, China 2007


Buddha Shrine – Great Goose Pagoda, Xian, China 2007


The Ghost City of Fengdu was a trip and a half.  It was supposed to be ‘Chinese Hell’ I think.  (It sure felt like it; subtropical heat and humidity with no wind…yikes!).  These are the ‘Soul Judges’ the dearly departed meets in the afterlife…


Soul Judges – Ming Hill, Fengdu Ghost City, China 2007

And finally, some landscapes from Beijing that I had in mind for the ‘Asian’ part of the yard.

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Asia in Central Texas

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Our bamboo gate in ‘Little Asia’


Garden of Tranquil Longevity, Beijing, China 2007


Garden of Tranquil Longevity, Beijing, China 2007


Garden of Tranquil Longevity, Beijing, China 2007


Garden of Tranquil Longevity, Beijing, China 2007

I am a camera.

I’ve been pretty busy lately so haven’t had much time to post anything.  Brian’s parents are on their grand tour of Europe; six weeks and more countries than I can keep count of.  Each afternoon we look forward to his mother’s recap of the day.  They make me want to pack my bags.  She’s an excellent observer and I hope she takes up blogging when they return – she’s a natural.

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Am still playing around with the camera – hopefully I’m getting better.  So this is just a lazy-man’s post…throwing up some recent photos.  These are mostly of the yard, but some odds-and-ends as well.


A couple of weeks ago, we made beer-can chicken.  I’ve always wanted to do that.  It came out great, but the rub was ‘blow-your-head-off’ hot; not for the faint of heart!

Beer-Can Chicken


  • 1   can light lager
  • 1   3 1/2–4-lb. chicken
    2   tablespoons  4-3-2-1 Spice Rub  (4 tablespoons kosher salt, 3 tablespoons light brown sugar, 2  tablespoons paprika, and 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper)

Special equipment

  • A foil baking pan (for drip  pan)


  • Pour out (or drink) half of beer.
  • Prepare grill for high, indirect heat and fit with grill pan  (for a charcoal grill, bank coals on 1 side of grill and put drip pan on empty  side; for a gas grill, leave 1 burner turned off and place drip pan over unlit  burner). Add water to pan to a depth of 1/2 inch.
  • Season chicken with 4-3-2-1 Spice Rub. Place cavity of  chicken, legs pointing down, onto open can so that it supports chicken upright.  Place can, with chicken, on grill over indirect heat (and above drip pan). Grill  chicken, 

    covered, until cooked through and an instant-read thermometer inserted  into the thickest part of thigh registers 165°, 45–60 minutes. (If using  charcoal, you may need to add more to maintain heat.) Let chicken rest 10  minutes before carving. Serve with pan drippings.

  • * Wing tip *

    Use a can opener to remove the entire top of the beer can  (pour out half). It’ll maximize the boozy vapors that make it to the  chicken.

My Evergreen Wisteria (Millettia reticulate) is blooming again.  I love this flower – it’s almost purple-black.

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Evergreen Wisteria

My Mexican Firebush (Hamelia patens); plumbago (Plumbaginaceae); lantana (verbenaceae); and shrimp plants (Justicia brandegeeana) are all doing very well.  Shrimp plant is another great garden workhorse I highly recommend.  It does very well in shade and blooms a dark strawberry colour during December.

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Mexican Firebush

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Plumbago and Daisy Bush

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Shrimp Plant


This was one of my inspiration pieces for the garden design – the “Provence meets  Austin backyard” theme.  Just a simple fleur de lis garden hose guard, but it really is one of my favourite things.

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My inspiration – fleur de lis hose guard


Out front, this is one of my other inspirations…apparently it’s called an armillary sphere – before Google, I suppose these were just thing-a-ma-bobs or doohickeys.

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Armillary Sphere


I really liked these photos of my meditating Buddha and one of my Indian stone wall lamps.

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Buddha in a meadow. I don’t think Bodhi trees grow in Central Texas.

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Indian wall stone lantern

I can never, ever remember the name of this shrub.  I’ve taken heaps of pictures of the label when I see it at ‘The Natural Gardener,’ but somehow, the name just doesn’t stick.  The blue glass is a shade from the old kitchen light fixtures we had; I love this colour combination.

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Shrub whose name I cannot remember.

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Just an artsy photo.

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Blue glass LED light shade from the kitchen


Yesterday, I hung a newly acquired suet feeder.  This one has a copper roof.  I’ve gone to great lengths to squirrel-proof it.  So far, so good.  A few days ago I saw a woodpecker in the tree; I hope this feeder keeps it around.

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My new suet feeder – bring on the woodpeckers!


And to conclude… A few days ago, my mother and I went on a driving tour through Fayette County.  In Flatonia, I finally found the house my grandmother was born in.  The fascinating thing about this house is that the chimney has a rock from each of the states (at that time).

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The house in Flatonia, Texas where my grandmother was born – been looking for this for ages.


Birds…and one lizard

SI ExifI don’t think I’ve written about the birds in the garden yet.  I’m pretty lucky to live on the edge of the Barton Creek Greenbelt which is a nice mix of trees (a gigantic live oak; cedars; Houston Yaupon hollies; a Texas persimmon; etc.) and meadow land.  The ecology provides abundant nesting opportunities as well as great feeding.  To encourage them to visit the garden I have seven various types of feeders (two tube feeders; a thistle feeder; a suet feeder, a humming bird feeder; a corn-cob feeder; and an English titmouse feeder) and four water features.  (I get all my seed (Supreme and No-Mess) from Wild Birds Unlimited – they’re great.  And if you use their ‘seed bank,’ you can buy in bulk and just stroll into the store and pick up a bag without having to worry about storing it. ) I used to have a Purple Martin house, but I never had any luck with it.  I’ll publish an inventory of birds I’ve seen, but this is a general overview of the standard visitors.

SI ExifI actually have a murder of crows living behind the house.  I heard them at dawn a couple days ago and got a picture of one today.  I like them much better than grackles.

Like every back yard in Texas, I’ve got cardinals.  I like this time of year – midsummer – because you can see different generations.  The newly fledged ones waiting for their crests to come on look like British punks with the spiked hair.  The juvenile males are really interesting because they often look like they have blue heads!SI Exif

Perhaps my favorite birds are the blue jays.  From their colours to their screeching to their thrust-and-parry feeding methods, there’s nothing subtle about blue jays at all.  One of the best descriptions I’ve ever read of them is from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow:

“…and the blue jay, that noisy coxcomb, in his gay light blue coat and white underclothes, screaming and chattering, nodding and bobbing and bowing, and pretending to be on good terms with every songster of the grove.”

wet blue jay

A blurry wet blue jay and my still-blooming clematis

This morning I saw a woodpecker.  These are pretty infrequent visitors, but I love them.  It’s amazing to watch them feed upside down from the suet feeder.

The black and yellow finches are fun to watch.  They’ll swarm around the feeders and the shallow ‘bird-bath’ fountain.  They’re definitely not intimidated by any of the larger birds.

While I really enjoy their calls, I’m not overly fond of the white-wing doves.  They’re a bit like flying pigs that gang up on the other birds and drain the feeders pretty dang quick.  They also have a tendency to fly into the side of the house; not an attractive sight.

This summer, I have whippoorwills living in the grove behind the house.  I love their calls but don’t ever expect to see any.

SI ExifWho doesn’t like humming birds?  But I never realized how territorial they can be.  The most I’ve ever seen is four, but there always seems to be a bully that’s keeping the others from the feeder.  That one sure seems to spend a lot of time and energy guarding that feeder.

humming bird1

Other birds I’ve seen in the past:  a red-tailed hawk sitting on the fence; a painted bunting; mocking birds; grackles (filth, filthy birds); screech owls (again, no success with an owl house); tit mouse; chickadees; and Carolina wrens (such a loud call for such a little bird).  My neighbor said he once saw a wild turkey in the back yard.  I’m really sorry I missed that.  Probably the most unusual though, was a road runner.  It was during the extreme heat wave in 2011.  This road runner hopped over the fence from the desiccated green belt; drank from one of the small bird baths; hopped/flew to the neighbors giant live oak; and then climbed the thing to the telephone wires behind.  It was amazing!

And here’s the promised lizard…

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Happy 4th!

So it’s the 4th of July – one of my favourite holidays.  Didn’t do much today but putz around the garden, rearranging and pruning a bit.  I’ve been practicing with the camera; here are some odds-and-ends that came out half-way decent.  Gotta go fire up the grill in a minute – we’re having fajitas and beans…woo hoo!  (Last year when we were in Toronto on Dieciséis de Septiembre, we went to a Mexican restaurant.  The food was pretty good , but I nearly spit up my margarita when the table next to us ordered “fa-JEYE-tas”)

I’m nothing if not patriotic.

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So I’m a complete luddite – technology is definitely not my thing.  I don’t believe I qualify to have a smartphone.  I find it fascinating when folks are always chasing down the latest gadget/upgrade/app.  App-shcmapp, give me low-tech any day.  These for example…clay pot feet shaped like reposing lions.  I just love these things but have never been able to find more like this.

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They’re supporting a pot of caladiums I got yesterday.

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I also spruced up and put out more of my tchotchkes.  I did realize how many Buddhas I had.

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This is my pink ‘Rose of Sharon’ – it’s doing exceptionally well; much better than the ones on the Capitol grounds.

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This bird house reminds me of 4th of July at my great grandparents’ house in San Antonio when I was a really little kid.  My great grandfather, Hugh Brunnemann, made this out of bits of quartz and a roof shingle when he was little – more than 100 years ago.

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And here’s my attempt at ‘sunrise.’  I’m probably better at ‘Tequila Sunrises,’ but I’ll keep trying.

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Hope everybody has a great 4th and wakes up on the 5th with all fingers in tact…

Mulch – I’m still alive to tell the tale…

So yesterday was my annual mulch day.  I usually do that in late April/early May when the oak process – old leaf drop; tassles; pollen – is completed, but I was exceptionally busy with the Legislature this year and the oak process seemed to go very late.  Anyroad, this was the first weekend I could get to it.  Note to self – Never wait this long again!hotashell

This year, it was 70 bags.  Usually, I go to Lowe’s and collect the stuff myself, but somebody kept saying I was too old for that sort of thing, so I had it delivered.  Hopefully I don’t look 49, but this afternoon I feel like 149.  If I’d’ve picked up the mulch myself, I’d probably be dead now.  I didn’t realize what a chore that was.  The Highlander can only hold 24 bags, so that’s three trips where I load the bags on the flat-bed cart; push with all my might to overcome inertia; and pray there’s a straight shot to the cashier.  Then it’s unloading the cart into the car; schlepping them home (looking like a low-rider in the process); unloading them out of the Highlander; then repeat twice.  Of course, the folks at Lowe’s think I’m either a gardening god or a complete freak.  I missed that attention this year.SI Exif

On Friday morning, a huge truck pulled up with a folk lift and quicker than you could say ‘Jack Robinson,’ I had two pallets of mulch in the driveway.  Yesterday morning was unloading the pallets and distributing the bags.  Then the work began.

Here are some photos – mainly as evidence that I do this crazy thing every year.

Here’s the front – before and after:

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And the back:

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During the day I stopped a couple of times – when I thought I was going to keel over and die – and got some fairly decent photos.  I’ve seen a lot of dragon flies this year.  This one was particularly colourful – orange wings and a crimson abdomen.

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My white Rose of Sharon (hibiscus syriacus) is doing very well.

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I’ve noticed that the crepe myrtles (lagerstroemia) in Austin seem to be doing exceptionally well this year.  The ones I planted behind the fence started blooming about a week ago.

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For some reason, my clematis (ranunculaceae) is blooming again.  That’s always been my biggest complaint about it; there seems to be an exceptionally short blooming season.  It might be getting more light this year than in the past, so perhaps that’s it.

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And I noticed that a titmouse has build a nest in the hollow part of this wrought-iron bear – extremely ingenious!

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Well, that’s another mulch day for the history books – Oy gewalt…

Garden Update – First of the Year

So yesterday was my first real ‘work day’ of the year in the garden.  I’ve been piddling around here-and-there all year, but yesterday was the first ‘back-breaker’ as it were.  Odd-number years are never good for me because of the Legislature and this year was particularly bad because I was juggling so many bills and hearings.

All-in-all, everything looks good despite the benign neglect as it were.  The grass is reviving the in back.  The front yard is probably a lost cause.  I know I’m going to eventually have to re-sod, but that’s for another day.  (This session, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 198, (Kirk Watson) prohibiting home owner associations in Texas from banning xeriscaping; I might keep that in the back of my mind.)

SI ExifI cleaned out all the beds in advance of next week’s annual mulch laying *sigh*  It looks good after it’s done, but it’s a nightmare to get it out.  That’s a blog entry in-and-of-itself.  The Turk’s Caps (Malvaviscus drummondii ) are doing really well.  They truly are my go-to plantings – they seem to thrive in almost any condition.  There are heaps of them on the Town Lake running trail.  That’s how I stumbled on them; literally.

I found some great portulacas at The Natural Gardner a few weeks ago for my two stone urns.  I’m very happy with those.

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The ‘wild meadow’ experiment I tried last year seems to be doing very well, too.  Probably because we didn’t have any significant freezes over the winter.  The blue daze (evolvulus), daisy bushes (euryops), lantanas (verbenaceae), blue potato bush (lycianthes rantonnetii), and plumbago (plumbaginaceae) are all coming on.

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I also planted a Black-Eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia).  I love these, but wasn’t able to find one last year.  SI ExifThey’re supposed to be pretty prolific re-seeders, but alas not for me.

I’ve been trying to reign in my penchant for buying garden tchotkes, but I couldn’t resist this chicken planter.  If I can’t SI Exifhave a real chicken coop, this is probably the closest I can get.

Now that I’ve written about it, I’m going to go enjoy it – grilling a couple zucchini pizzas and quaffing a Pink Cadillac Margarita (you MUST make this drink!)