Things to do in Austin, Texas

The Great Paddle Boat Rescue

On a day in August, many years ago, two out of town friends and I decided it would be fun to rent a paddleboat for a short cruise on Town Lake in Austin. *Kay and I seated ourselves in front of the paddlewheel, while Mikey sat between us by the rudder. The adults would provide the muscle and Mikey, age 7 (almost!), would steer. We were all wearing life jackets. It took a little while for Mikey to get the hang of steering, so we didn’t get very far from shore at first. We paddled around in the area underneath the South 1st street bridge. We saw ducks near shore and people catching lots of fish from a short pier. We also saw abandoned Cliff Swallow nests under the bridge, along with numerous pigeons roosting on the bridge supports. I pointed out to the others that the high pitched sounds we were hearing were the sounds of baby pigeons.

Eventually we got ambitious and decided to paddle across the lake and over to the Congress Ave. bridge. Way up ahead we saw some sort of water bird out on the lake near our goal. As we made progress towards the bridge we saw the bird splashing around in the water. Kay said she thought it was diving for food. When we were about 50 feet away I realized that the bird looked more like a pigeon and that it was fluttering around so much because it was trying to stay afloat. I said that we had better pick it up or it would drown. Easier said than done! Kay and Miguel both tried to steer while I paddled and yelled at Kay to hurry up or the bird was going to drown and for them to get us up alongside it on my side where I could grab it and that even though I was wearing a life jacket, I didn’t want to have to go into the water after it!

Well, we rescued the pigeon. We still had half an hour left in our hour rental of the boat, so I kept the bird pressed to my side and we paddled on. Out of the cold water of the lake, under my arm, the bird was warming up nicely. At one point, I happened to look down to check on his condition and noticed mites running all over my arm! Grey mites. Red mites. All I could do was lean over and wash them off with lake water. Kay and Mikey and I enjoyed the rest of the trip, but half my concentration was on the mites. Back at the dock, one of the guys who ran the boat rental said that someone brings in a pigeon every other day! The one we had rescued appeared to be a juvenile with feathers long enough to fly. Perhaps the young ones do not know enough not to land on the lake.

The pigeon was dry and eating by the next day and was turned over to a volunteer with Wildlife Rescue for observation and eventual release. Thanks to Kay and Mikey for their part in the rescue! If anyone is interested, the paddleboat rental is located on the south shore of the lake near the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Have fun, but be prepared for the unexpected.

*Names were changed to protect the innocent

Grateful for a Blind Dog

My husband and I live with two old dogs and an old cat. One of the dogs, Dash, we inherited from a deceased family member. We had always said, “If any thing happens, we will take care of little Dash.” Dash is 13 going on 2. He is short and looks like a fuzzy tater tot. In July Dash went blind in one eye. Three weeks later he went blind in the other eye. I have never had a blind pet before and it is a challenge. He responds to our voices and he knows the house and yard pretty well. We are careful to not move things around.We keep track of Dash’s whereabouts so he doesn’t hurt himself. When he starts to rock and roll in the early morning, one of us has to take him outside to go to the bathroom. Sometimes I feel a bit trapped with the care routines between him and our other ailing dog.

But, last week I took Dash out at dawn. Groggy and a bit resentful, I looked up to see beautiful streaks of pink jet contrails and a silver sliver of moon. This was a special dawn sky that I would have slept through. I am grateful for getting to see this awesome scene, that except for Dash, I would not have experienced. Our little, blind dog is my guide these days.

Jet Trails and Moon Sliver
(photo by Betty McCreary)

The River And The Wall

U.S. On The Left-Mexico On The Right
(2009 photo by Betty McCreary)

My parents loved talking about their visits to Big Bend National Park in west Texas. A few of the trips involved hiring a boatman to take them across the Rio Grande to the Mexican side where they hiked and camped. This was legal and the Mexican police even offered a pistol to my dad to carry as protection. I grew up hearing these stories and looking at their photos of the natural beauty of the mountains. My first trip there was during my college years. I have been back on several trips since then with friends and family. We have camped in campgrounds with amenities (water and a bathroom nearby), back country primitive sites with no amenities, at the park lodge, and in nearby towns.

Big Bend Bluebonnets
(2009 photo by Betty McCreary)
Big Bend Mountainside
(2009 photo by Betty McCreary)
Beauty in the Desert
(2009 photo by Betty McCreary)

I have been thinking a lot about my trips and my parent’s trips after viewing the documentary movie “The River and the Wall.” The movie was filmed in 2018 and released earlier this year. It follows five people traveling the length of the Rio Grande in Texas from El Paso all the way to the mouth of the river as it enters the Gulf of Mexico. The group consists of four men and one woman and they come from a variety of backgrounds (photographer for National Geographic, ornithologist, river guide), but they are all conservationists. The goal was to document the existing border before a proposed border wall cuts through the natural beauty. They traveled 1, 200 miles using mountain bikes, walking, canoeing, and on horseback. They passed areas with a border wall and areas with border patrol agents, but much of the adventure is in wild and rugged territory with no man made border wall.

Sign Warning People Not To Buy Goods Sold By Mexican Nationals
(2009 photo by Betty McCreary)
Mexican Made Items for Sale on U. S. Side of River
Hard to see in photo but there is a walking stick and some little scorpions made of colorful wire, some quartz, and a small can to put money in. The note says that the money will help the school across the river in Boquillas.
(2009 photo by Betty McCreary)

The movie is directed by Ben Masters. We saw the film at the Austin Film Society Cinema theater and after the showing we were privileged to enjoy a question and answer session with two of the adventurers, Jay Kleberg and Austin Alvarado. I give the film two thumbs up for the stunning photography and the message that we need to protect our natural areas from being destroyed. It is entertaining and educational at the same time, as well as containing some laugh out loud humor. Go see “The River and the Wall.” I guarantee you will learn something you did not know about our Texas/ Mexico border.

Cooling Off In The Rio Grande
(2009 photo by Betty McCreary)

At www.TheRiverandtheWall.com there is more information and a movie trailer. There is a The River and the Wall Facebook page with clips from the film. The movie is available in select theaters and you can rent or buy it if you have Amazon Prime.

Arachnophobia

     I have arachnophobia, which is the fear of spiders and other arachnids. From what I have read, my case of arachnophobia is a mild one. I used to be like most kids and had a curiosity about bugs. I don’t remember being afraid of them. I did have a healthy respect for red wasps and yellow paper wasps after some painful stings. My arachnophobia began one autumn when I was about 9 years old. I was standing up against a honeysuckle covered chain link fence talking to a friend who was in her back yard nearby. When the conversation ended I turned away from the fence and saw a large, yellow spider coming at me! At least I thought it was after me. I yelled and flailed and the spider ended up on the ground. What probably happened was that I had gotten caught up in the spider’s web and as I moved away I pulled her with me. This scared the heck out of me and for many years after that I had a real fear of all spiders. If a spider was in a movie scene, I had to close my eyes.

Fast forward twenty years to when I started to take photography seriously, especially the photography of all things “nature.” I started to lose a bit of my spider fear. As long as there was a camera lens between me and a spider, I was able to get pretty close to take their picture. Some spiders have really pretty colors and patterns that can only be seen and appreciated up close.

     In our household I am usually the go to person to get rid of insects inside the house. I would rather capture them and escort them outside than to kill them. My daughter and husband rely on me to remove what they consider pests. We took a trip to visit a family member living in Nicaragua a few years ago. My daughter came out of the bathroom telling me about a big spider in the shower. Mommy to the rescue! However, I took one look at the size of this spider and went and found someone else to remove it. I still didn’t want to get close to the really big ones such as tarantulas.

     I often go out with other nature lovers to help with the weekly fauna survey out at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Research Center here in Austin. We are true nature nerds who get excited about almost any tiny insect creature we find, as well as the birds, cottontails, and reptiles. Learning about various spiders and their habits on that property has contributed to my lessening spider phobia.

     Recently I spotted a small garden spider in a web in a trash can half full of yard trimmings. I was excited to see her since it had been a long time since we have had one in the yard. I asked my husband to not use that trash can so she could keep her web. He said “Okay.” Well, he is not as excited about all of these little critters and forgot about her. I went back a week and a half later and I could not see the spider or her web. There was a pile of plant cuttings where her web had been. I was not happy with hubby! But, a few days later she and her web showed up again in the trash can. She is growing bigger and I check on her every few days. I have named her Charlotte. Her web now extends out of the trash can and onto the plant growing on our fence nearby. Guess what the plant is? You guessed it, a honeysuckle vine! I have come a long way from fearing to loving and protecting these pretty creatures. I am wishing her the best and look forward to seeing at least one egg sac this autumn. She will die before the eggs hatch and I will miss her and her lovely web.

Back view of Charlotte, the Black and yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia)
(photos by B. McCreary) (identification based on “Spiders of Texas-A Guide to Common and Notable Species” by Valerie G. Bugh)
Charlotte’s Underside

 

An Ode and An Apology

To Our Hackberry-

You have rough bark and sandpaper leaves

Smooth sweet berries

A stately trunk and a huge shade giving crown

What a magnificent species you are

Oh Sweet Sugarberry

Host to Hackberry butterfly larva

You provide a strong safe route for

Squirrels from roof to yard

A place for the anole lizard to “show his money”

And the grasshopper to rest

You plant yourself and

Thrive, next to most any other plant or structure…

You do not discriminate

But love the one you are with

Prolific, you are a survivor

I admire your tenacity

Hackberry Growing Up Through Chili Pequin Bush

Apologizing to Our Hackberry

                I  apologize for wanting to chop you down. In the 18 years we have lived in this house I can never keep up with all the yard work I feel a need to do. Weeding and pruning. Never ending. I have pruned you sneaky hackberries over and over again. You grow so fast, disguised among the other, wanted plants. I didn’t plant you and try to keep you all at bay. But, you, the one by the back porch: I let you grow at the request of my husband about 5 years ago. Now you are almost 30 feet tall and your crown is almost 20 feet, providing good shade for our back porch.  You are massive.

I apologize for cutting down your parents and aunts and uncles and siblings and kids.

Lately, my husband and I have regular conversations about whether or not to chop you down.

We haven’t decided yet. I apologize to you for even bringing this up. My personifying you and my guilt about the chopping thoughts may yet keep you alive. ___________________________________________________________________________________

Note: Versions of both the Ode and the Apology were written 4 years ago. After one Spring of our porch and patio furniture being drenched in sticky tree juice, we had finally had enough. We chopped. I couldn’t bear to part with all of the tree.  This is what is left in 2019:

A Closer Look Part II

I come from a long line of hunters on my Dad’s side of the family.

From left to right:My father John Richard Downes, Jr. as a boy; his grandfather Richard “Dick” Downes, Jr.; my grandmother Mary Buie Downes and my grandfather John Richard Downes,Sr. (Johnnie)

If hunting was genetic, I would know all the game seasons, keep my licenses current, my guns cleaned, and have multiple mounted animal heads on my walls. But, as far as I know there is no hunting gene. I don’t have any hunting licenses and never did. I have no hunting guns and I only have a vague idea of when deer season is. My grandfather Johnnie loved to go off on hunting trips in various parts of Texas depending on what he was hunting. Sometimes my grandma Mary would go and sometimes my brother would go. When I was about 11, I went on one trip down to Pearsall, Texas. My grandparents gave me a chance to try shooting a shotgun. I was not prepared for the kick and was reduced to tears by the jolt and surprise of it. That was my first and my last hunting trip. I would rather observe and wonder at animals of all sorts and don’t have it in me to kill them.

So, I never became a hunter, and contrary to rumor, I was not named Betty after my grandfather Johnnie’s hunting dog “Betty.”

I did eat some of the game they brought home. We almost always had something wild in the freezer. My favorite was quail. I didn’t like the venison and I didn’t like duck or dove.

I think about hunting doves a lot these days because of the White winged doves that tend to dominate our backyard feeders.

These birds are easy to identify by their large size and the distinctive white edges to the wings. If you look just a bit closer you will see how handsome they can be with beautiful blue skin around the eyes and bright pink legs and feet.

White Winged Dove
(copyright 2019 Betty McCreary)

White winged doves have moved from south Texas to much farther north. When I was a kid we never saw them here in Austin. Now they are everywhere and seem to have pushed away most of the smaller Mourning and Inca doves. According to a year 2000 Spring Breeding Survey there were 264,000 White winged doves here in Travis County! That was almost 20 years ago and I imagine there are more now, many of them in my backyard at times. It is believed that changing south Texas agriculture, loss of habitat, and hunting pressure have all contributed to the birds moving north.*

*White winged Dove information from Texas Parks and Wildlife Website Page: “South Texas Wildlife Management” (White-winged Doves) https://tpwd.texas.gov/landwater/land/habitats/southtx_plain/upland_birds/white_winged_dove.phtml

Spring Legacy

     In Spring there are almost always blooms of color in our yard, especially in certain areas where I see my late mother’s magic. 20 years ago my mother dug up some spiderwort plants in her yard and brought them to me for our new garden. As I planted them I had no idea if they would survive, let alone reproduce.  I also had no idea how special this simple motherly housewarming gift really was.  Each February since then the purple spiderwort flowers bloom. By late March they have taken over large sections of the backyard. I wake up in the morning and look out the window at a small sea of purple heads on green stalks.

    Spiderworts are in the family Commelinaceae and the genus Tradescantia. They are native to North America but the genus was named after John Tradescantia, a 17th century naturalist and gardener to King Charles the 1st of England. Someone in North America sent some spiderwort seeds to Tradescantia in England. The plants are still grown in English gardens.  I can imagine a member of the royal family admiring the spiderworts in their gardens 300 years ago.

spiderwort

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My mother died in 2010.  I still miss her every day. But, I don’t feel sad when I see the spiderworts. Instead, I smile and see her reborn in each lovely purple flower.

Backyard Spiderworts (1)

 

Pictured above:Giant Spiderwort (Tradescantia gigantea)

Sources: Wildflowers of Texas by Geyata Ajilvsgi; Wildflowers of the Texas Hill Country by Marshall Enquist

Photos © Betty McCreary