Friday, September 11, 2015

Everyone has a soft spot

Ours is Alexa.

She follows Denny around like a dog, spending most days in his office. 

And looks down on him from the wall via the portrait I gave him for his birthday, commissioned from our artist-friend Mary Riddle. 

Isn't it gorgeous?  

Copyright 2009-2015 Kathleen Scott, for Hill Country Mysteries. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Barn Swallows, Texas Hill Country summer residents

Our measure of time runs to autumn's gold leaves in the cedar elms, winter's first fire in the fireplace, spring daffodils blooming like shining faces over dead-brown beds. 

We know summer is coming when the barn swallows arrive. Denny and I are lucky to live in a neighborhood of high-ceilinged porches, perfect territory for barn swallow nests.

"Our" 2014 male swallow, keeping watch over the female and babies.
Last year's swallows reared two families in their nest on our porch. The pair seemed like new parents, unsure of the process, and we weren't sure they'd manage.  But both clutches fledged.

"Mama feed me!" (7/9/2014)
A trio of fledgling swallows sits on the edge of their corner nest, one day before first flight. (8/26/14)

The swallows start showing up in late spring to early summer.  Pairs scope out nest sites, twitter-warbling as they fly into porches to check potential homes.  According to All About Birds, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website"Both male and female build the nest cup using mud. They collect mud in their bills and often mix it with grass stems to make pellets. They first construct a small shelf to sit on, then build up the nest’s sides. If built against a wall or other vertical surface the result is a semicircular, half-cup shape."

Some pairs return to the same porch every year, although most homeowners take down the nests after the swallows have left for the winter. I hated taking down last year's nest. Just look at the weaving of mud and grass and think how many trips they flew to the pond to dip mud from the edge. But we were planning to paint the porch...and I'd read that nests may become infested with mites, bad for new babies.

In 2015, a pair of swallows built a nest next to the 2014 nest site. The pair had a single clutch of two, pictured here (7/17/15) shortly before they fledged. 

The nests look different, in part due to location.  The 2014 nest was in a corner so it was a quarter round, 2015's nest was flat against the wall so it was a semi-circle.  

I think the color was different year to year because weather dictated a change in material. We had rain in 2015 and the banks of the pond where the birds got mud in 2014 were underwater.  I wondered how the birds would manage until I passed a new home site where groups of swallows were dipping for mud. The 2015 nest also seems to incorporate more grass, maybe the mud at the construction site needed more reinforcement?

Swallow droppings make a mess on the porch--the young know not to soil the nest, hanging their back ends over the side to do their business. But washing the floor is a small price for the entertainment of watching the birds. 

As a bonus, swallows are flying insect-eaters and keep the porch clear of mosquitoes.

This year's parents had only the one clutch but the juveniles hang out with other young swallows, resting in porch shade on hot afternoons, sometimes 10 birds together, twittering.  

We're hoping they survive the arduous migration to wintering grounds in Central And South America, and come back to us next year.
Hope you get a chance too to welcome barn swallow beauty to your own yard.

Migration map from Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Copyright 2009-2015 Kathleen Scott, for Hill Country Mysteries. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

It was a good day

I was hungry and my wine stash was depleted. 

Michael, the cooking and wine expert at my local HEB, watched me pick up a budget-priced Vinho Verde from Portugal.  "Do you drink champagne?" he said.

He must have seen the look on my face. "Well, the wine department is closing out Roederer Estate at $8.08 a bottle. If you're interested I'll show you where it is." 

I may not remember my next door neighbor's name but I know the retail price range of my favorite wines, and Roederer Estate runs $18-$22 in our area.  

So I picked myself off the floor and we trotted three aisles over. In a surgical strike, I liberated all the orphans on that shelf, including two Mumm Brut non-vintage standing with the Roederer Estate.  

Then I trundled my cart to the checkout counter before the authorities could change their minds.

And yes, it was a good day.

Copyright 2009-2015 Kathleen Scott, for Hill Country Mysteries. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Sound of Summer

I was watering in the back garden when this guy crawled from a crack in the clay.  King of summer sounds, the cicada. 

And I'll share his serenade with you. Just click here Cicada songs via  and scroll down to the sound gallery.  You're welcome.

Copyright 2009-2015 Kathleen Scott, for Hill Country Mysteries. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

BBQ Love--a hot Texas tasting

Colorful team names are plentiful on the BBQ cook-off circuit.

You might think you have to be an expert to score a judging seat in an official BBQ competition. Nope; at least not in the beginning rounds. Anyone who can read and eat can volunteer.

On a sweltering Texas Saturday afternoon I passed judgement on 21 bites of BBQ pork ribs followed by 15 bites of chili; 36 bites in all--washed down with 4 bottles of water and a light beer. 

Each contestant submits his or her entry in an identical container, which is assigned a number by the organizers to preserve anonymity. The boxes are then passed around the judging table. Using a new plastic utensil to keep from spreading germs, each judge cuts off a bite (or dips it out if you're tasting chili or beans) and scores it based on aroma, appearance, texture, taste and overall impression. Gotta' think fast, the next plate is coming.

About ten minutes into the rib round, a fellow judge, one of the old salts in the BBQ competition 'bidness', told me, "You don't have to eat it if it don't look right." 

I wished he'd said that a few minutes earlier, when I cut into a not-quite-done rib that might have come from a cook who'd had too fine a Friday night resulting in too late a start on Saturday morning. 

But the chili made the biggest impression. You wouldn't think 15 little bites would blaze a trail through your innards.  

You'd be wrong.  
Chili waiting to be tasted.  

Even if none of 'em burned your taste buds off, the accumulation of spicy spoon-dips would coat your tract all the way to the gut and maybe then some. 

By the end you might not want to eat again for a couple of days.

But when you recover you'll think maybe next time you'll go for the brisket panel. There's nothin' prettier than pink smoke rings, visual messengers of flavor.

And if you do judge chili, you'll know to drink a whole lotta beer to cut the grease and keep up your hydration. And you'll bring your spouse to drive you home.

So while you're thinking about it, check out the schedules for Texas BBQ cook-offs: Lonestar BBQ Society, Central Texas Barbeque Association, Texas Gulf Coast BBQ Cookers Association, and these other places too: BBQ Cooking Contests and Events.

When it's over you'll remember the people you met and stories they told and Texas-good time you had.  

Copyright 2009-2015 Kathleen Scott, for Hill Country Mysteries. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Faust Hotel & Brewery Co.

Walter Faust, Sr. must have been a determined man. In 1929, two weeks before the stock market crash, he opened a splendid four-story brick hotel in the little Texas town of New Braunfels. And somehow kept it open through the Depression, blights and World War II.  

The hotel is owned by others now, but Walter's portrait hangs in the lobby and the Faust Hotel still welcomes guests. The rooms are small by modern standards and wear the marks of time but folks come for the downtown location, historic feel and fine brewed-on-site beer.

And although Walter is long gone from this earth, visitors sometimes report seeing a dapper gent in a three piece suit wandering the lobby; a man they say looks just like the portrait. 

We didn't see him when we stayed there, but you're welcome to check for yourself.

The Faust Hotel & Brewery Co. 
240 South Seguin Ave., New Braunfels, TX 78130

Oh yeah, don't forget the beer.

Copyright 2009-2015 Kathleen Scott, for Hill Country Mysteries. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Hamilton Pool Preserve, a Texas Hill Country wonder

You're not close to much but God on the road to Hamilton Pool Preserve in the wilds of Travis County, west of Austin and north of Dripping Springs.

But when you get there--if you're early and lucky enough to be one of the limited number admitted to the popular natural swimmin' hole--you'll walk down a steep-ish quarter-mile path lined with bushes and trees, emerging at a natural blue-green pool fed by a cascading waterfall. 

Created by the ancient collapse of a limestone cavern, arching remnants remain around one side of the sinkhole.  

Open-air stalactites drip into being around the edge.

In ordinary times, a path leads down across a low bridge to a small sand beach, around under the rock overhang, behind the waterfall and back to the start. 

Recent high water has taken the bridge and covered the beach. Swimming is currently prohibited due to high water. And the only way to the overhang is to walk toward the waterfall, then take the stairs to pass behind the pouring water. 

But walking into living geologic time is worth the trip.

Hamilton Pool Preserve is a Travis County park, with 232 acres, including a 3/4 mile hiking path to the Pedernales River.  

24300 Hamilton Pool Rd., Dripping Springs, TX 78620   
Entry fee is $15/car or $5/car for seniors (cash or check, no credit cards). Hours are 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, weather permitting.  

Call before you go (512) 264-2740 to find out if swimming and hiking is currently allowed, particularly during rainy periods.

Plan your trip to avoid crowds--early on weekdays, preferably off-season.  The park department warns:  Be aware that in the summer when swimming is allowed, most visitors are turned away and are not allowed entry due to overcrowding in the preserve...It is slightly easier to gain admittance to the preserve on a warm-weather weekday, but weekdays are very crowded too with long waiting lines. 

And don't forget to bring your camera, you'll want to remember your trip back in time.

Copyright 2009-2015 Kathleen Scott, for Hill Country Mysteries. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Hill Country Water Gardens

Encircled by the small town of Cedar Park just beyond the northern edge of Austin's sprawl lies one of the most unique garden-store playgrounds in Texas.

Splashing fountains, pools and ponds flow through five acres at Hill Country Water Gardens, a garden center "making outdoors awesome since 1999" with water features of every kind plus aquatic plants--and enough terrestrial green to make any vegetable, herb, native or habitat gardener happy.

When we moved from our last home, we left behind the fabulous waterfall Denny built for my birthday in 2007. 

I miss it. 

For our new place, he suggested a sculpture instead of a water feature. But I'm among those who know that everyone who doesn't live in the desert or the Arctic needs water in their outdoor space. Flowing water is the jewelry of a garden--energy, sparkle and shine that sings to the soul.

So we trekked to Cedar Park in search of a fountain. 

We found fountains of cylindrical petrified wood, striated spikes of rock and bubbling boulders of Big Bend. 

Each would have been a good choice except for price.

Eventually we found the perfect fountain for our smaller, more citified yard: sculptural, sky and earth colored, and in our budget. 

It doesn't look like much now, disassembled on the dead circle of lawn which will become a terrace with raised beds and paths.  But when we've hacked out the ground and leveled the slope, wired and plumbed electric and water, built paths and planted beds, put the fountain together and placed it in the center, and water runs from the top of the sphere disappearing into the pedestal base, my gardens will look and sound like home.
Copyright 2009-2015 Kathleen Scott, for Hill Country Mysteries. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Back to the joy of living

Mom had a stroke in February.  It was a "light" stroke, from which we learned that even a "little" brain damage can change your life.

Speech therapist Liz working with Mom on swallowing.

She's doing well, still in therapy three times a week but without tubes and able to get around on her own. Still feisty.

I haven't written much since her stroke, in part because I've been at her place a lot. Also because it's been hard to concentrate. 

I'm ready to write again now that she's improving. 

Mom's first night back at home, when she crawled into Dad's hospital bed to snuggle.

And I can focus on gardens and travel and birds and dining and the joy of living.

Copyright 2009-2015 Kathleen Scott, for Hill Country Mysteries. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.