Wednesday, February 29, 2012

I Spotted a Bobcat!

Today I was driving the tram at Santa Ana NWR and John was leading the tour when I spotted a bobcat! By the time I could slow down and say "bobcat," the cat had crossed the road and disappeared into the woods. John turned around, but didn't see it. Some of the tram riders saw it, too. This is really exciting. This is the only wildcat seen here on the refuge. One is spotted every few days by someone, but in the six weeks we have been here, we had never seen one. Now I have.

We have seen a Texas Land Tortoise, javelina, armadillo, and Chachalaca. Today I saw three Cardinals fly across the road as we drove around. But a bobcat is special. We have never seen one except in a zoo.

It was a busy day that required lots of flexibility. The US Fish and Wildlife Chief's meeting is being held in the Rio Grande Valley this week. That means the supervisors of the regional offices and other high-level supervisors from around the country were here. This afternoon they had a field trip that included a visit to Santa Ana. It was our refuge's turn to show off the tram interpretation tours. Since we were on duty today, I gave the tour. But the plans changed four times between 7:30 am when we arrived and 3:15 pm when the group of chiefs arrived.

At 3:30 we started a condensed and modified version of our regular tour for about 22 chiefs and our own refuge manager, who we hardly know. It was all stressful, but it went well and they were all really fun people.

It sure was good to come home, relax and talk about our day. That is what is fun about living this lifestyle with my best friend.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

BBQ--Wet, Cold, Mainly Chicken

Saturday, we drove to Mercedes for Smokin' on the Rio, a BBQ cookoff.

When we left our RV, the temperature was in the upper 40s and it had rained for several hours. Not the best weather for cooking outside or for eating there, but we still had a good time. The event was the 9th Annual Texas State Championship BBQ Cook-Off, with $10,000 in prize money for the one team crowned "The Best in Texas." The teams compete in fajitas, beans, chicken, ribs and brisket. Though we went hoping to eat brisket, it wasn't due to the judges till 4 and we weren't willing to wait that long to eat lunch. Instead, we sampled several kinds of beans and fajitas and a whole lot of chicken.

Was that chicken ever good! So tender. After studying what they were doing, we decided they often used the beer-can method of cooking it. We will have to try it some time.

This team is deciding which pieces to turn in to the judges.

It's in the box.

What does it take to cook it just right? It must be at the correct temperature.

Then there is the rub of secret spices.

Later, some other trimmings to enhance the flavor for the last period of cooking.

Of course, there is the mesquite wood. But isn't it cheating to get the fire started with a blast of burning propane?

The contestants brought their own wood for cooking. But if people like us enjoyed the food enough to want to cook it at home, we could even buy our wood there.

The BBQ rigs came in all shapes and sizes. Click on the photo to get a better look.

The names of the teams were interesting, as well.

We see the US Border Patrol everywhere down here. Apparently, in addition to trying to keep our borders safe, they also are good cooks. Last year they placed 5th in fajitas. We don't know the rankings this year--we didn't stay until 6:30 pm.

We ran into Eric and Kathy, two of the volunteers we work with at Santa Ana. Look at how we are all dressed. I told you it was cold.

It was cold enough that we even accepted smelling like a campfire to get warm.

BBQ cookoffs are a family affair. So, if you have a six-week old puppy, you bring it along, too.

And this little fellow was helping cook.

An outhouse was part of the decor at Da Smokin' Boys cooking area.

If you looked closely at the collage of signs for cooking teams, you saw that one was sponsored by a funeral home. This fellow converted a casket into a trailer to haul his BBQ supplies behind his motorcycle.

How about this sign?

I don't imagine they sold much ice cream yesterday, but this sure was a clever way to turn the cranks on the freezers.

There were various bands entertaining during the afternoon, in addition to these dancers. I'll bet they were freezing by the end of their set.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Friends--Virtual No Longer

For more than a year, we have been following Jim and Gayle's blog. Last spring, they were exploring southern New Mexico, just like we were. Eventually, we were in the same state park and we hoped to meet them. However, our 5th-wheel landing gear stopped working and we had to go on to Albuquerque to get it fixed. The day we planned to move into the same campground they were in, instead we stopped for gas on our way north and watched them drive down the road. An opportunity missed.

But then, as we headed to the Rio Grande Valley last month, we learned they, too, were in the area. Yesterday we met them at Carino's in Pharr for lunch. We didn't stop talking and sharing our adventures for two and a half hours. Now they are living, breathing friends, not just virtual friends.

Yesterday afternoon, the sun came out. That was a big deal. And it is still shining today. But many--it seems like most--of the days this month have been cloudy and rainy. Those of us who spend most of our time in Colorado and Phoenix aren't used to this. The rain has encouraged the trees to begin greening up. This Sugar Hackberry tree is next to our trailer. When we moved here last month, it was entirely bare. Look at it today.

With rain comes the mushrooms. Aren't these pretty?

This Huisache (pronounced wee-sache) tree is near our trailer. It is covered with blooms.

This Queen butterfly (I think) was attracted to the flowers.

The Rio Grande Valley is a rich agricultural area with farmers raising many different vegetables, as well as sugar cane. They have been harvesting cabbage since we arrived and we saw some sugar cane at the vegetable market yesterday, so they must be harvesting it somewhere. Today I watched this crop duster working a field just down the road. He (or she) flies sooo close to the ground!

Friday, February 17, 2012

What Are They Looking At?

On Tuesday, John led a tram tour for a group of third graders from a nearby school. Everyone, including John, had a great time. The kids were interested, enthusiastic and well behaved. But, what do you think they were looking at here?

Mistletoe! This parasitic plant grows mainly on the Honey Mesquite and Sugar Hackberry trees here in the Rio Grande Valley. Did you know that the white berries are poisonous to humans and household pets? This is one of the plants we talk about on our tram tours.

This is what I was looking at Thursday afternoon. This Altimira Oriole had a rather precarious perch to eat the orange in the feeding station at the refuge.

Today is the first of four days off this week. We spent it driving to Mission for my annual mammogram--yuck. But they have all been clear so far. Hopefully, this one will be, too. The rest of the day we spent running errands. We stopped at a New York Deli for a very good lunch.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

We're Hooked

We are surrounded by birders and by so many beautiful birds we have never seen before that I guess we have caught the disease--birdwatching. Saturday, we visited the Estero Llano Grande State Park in nearby Weslaco. They have several ponds, as well as woodlands, and we were able to look at lots of water birds. I believe these are Northern Shovelers. Look at the beak and you will understand the name.

I'm not sure which kind of duck this is, but it is a cool picture.

This is a Spotted Sandpiper in winter plumage. It is called "teeter-tail" because of its habit of endlessly bobbing the rear part of its body up and down.

I think I am most excited about this photo of the Common Pauraque. I had heard this bird talking to its neighbor several nights when we first moved onto the refuge. Yesterday we came to a sign asking us to stay on the trail so we wouldn't disturb the sleeping nightjars. When I saw some people looking at the ground, I had to see if I could spot it, too.

Check out this Great Egret.

This Yellow-crowned Night-Heron was quietly resting in the brush next to the pond. It is the second kind of night heron we have seen since coming to Texas. We saw a Black-Crowned Night-Heron in Big Bend National Park.

It wasn't just birds that we saw at Estero Llano Grande. There were a number of these large turtles.

Not is pretty but very interesting was this Nutria. We had heard that they were in this part of Texas. When swimming, this semi-aquatic rodent reminds you of a beaver. But when it comes out of the water, it looks like a large rat. According to Wikipedia, "They feed on river plants, and waste close to 90% of the plant material while feeding on the stems." They are an invasive species and destroy the vegetation where they feed.

We know we will be doing more birding during our three months here. Each time we go out, we get more excited. We must learn, however, to be more patient. This is a low-key activity.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Rain, Drugs and Birds

These three things have nothing in common except that they are part of our experience this week. It has been raining in the Rio Grande Valley--good news because of the recent drought. But it also causes problems. Each day we work as tram tour interpreters, we begin our day driving the tram route on a safety check. Yesterday, this is what we came on less than a mile into our drive.

We called dispatch and within 15 minutes a small fork-lift and a mule had arrived and moved the tree.

The Santa Ana Refuge is located along the Rio Grande, the border between the US and Mexico. You have all read about the illegal immigrants, the drug smuggling, and the drug wars. So it isn't surprising that our RV parking area is protected by a fence. A fairly serious fence with barbed wire on the top.

Obviously, that is a good idea. Tuesday evening we heard a loud pick-up truck drive down the road to the east of our compound at a high rate of speed. Within less than two minutes (I think) a US Border Patrol vehicle sped along the same road--followed by another, and another, and another. Finally there were 10 green and white SUVs parked and driving along the levee.

We don't know if they made any arrests, but we did see them loading bales of plastic-wrapped drugs into one vehicle.

We see so much of the Border Patrol, we feel relatively safe. We just hope neither the drug cartels nor the smugglers and ICE get in a shoot-out near us.

The rain continued today, but it was still necessary to feed the birds on the refuge.
We put out birdseed, oranges and a mixture of corn, sugar and peanut butter to attract all sorts of birds. Here I am, attaching an orange to a tree.

This gives you an idea of the variety of feeders. If you look close, you can see at least five birds in the photo. Click to enlarge and look real close.

This Golden-Fronted Woodpecker is going for the corn and peanut butter mixture.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Some Family Time

Nearly six year ago, when we were parked in a Corps of Engineers park along the Mississippi River in Iowa to do some genealogy research on my Longley family relatives, we came back to our RV and noticed that the reservation card on the site next to ours read "Longley." What a coincidence! Harry is a distant cousin. We haven't figured out the exact relationship. He says we might be 42nd cousins.

We have kept in contact and when our Christmas letter in December said we would be spending time here in the Rio Grande Valley, Harry emailed to ask when we would arrive. It turns out, Harry and Marilyn have been coming here for 12 years.

Today, we met them for lunch.

We spent a pleasant two hours talking, learning about each others lives, sharing genealogy research stories and tips. We will see them again before we leave.

It is cool (some would say cold) in the Valley this week. It rained quite a bit yesterday, which is a good thing for the state which has had such a drought and terrible fires last summer. But the rain means mud. Look at the tire on our truck after we drove about two blocks on a dirt road.

Because our running route here is also on dirt, we decided to drive to the refuge and run on the paved road there. It was a good idea and we had a good run. All in all, it has been a very good day.