Monday, October 2, 2017

Learning acceptance

by Kathleen Scott
Last January we lost our Alexa, the sassiest cutest little house cat, also known to everyone who met her as the bearer of Claws of Death. She was taken by FIP (Feline Infectious Peritonitis).

I haven't been able to think about her without tears since, in spite of doing everything I know to grow out of the grief--we made adonation to research for a cure for FIP, put up a shelf in the house for the urn with her ashes and placed a guard-cat statuette to watch over the bird feeders in the garden now that she isn't supervising from the window.
I've been practicing remembering the good times and reminding myself how lucky we were to find her as a tiny kitten in our wild country neighborhood. It all helped and I still hurt.
In the core of my being I knew that she was unfairly taken, that she was too young, that it was existentially wrong. She was only three, we should have had another decade at least with her.
Then last weekend, a conversation with a friend caused a shift.
In reality, none of the things I knew were true. Life isn't fair, it's an often-random progression. She wasn't singled out. I didn't lose her too young, I lost her when I lost her.
The shift was akin to an "Aha" I had during cancer treatment. Every day I went to the hospital and laid on a steel table while a beam burned my breast from the inside out. Later came months of chemo. And through it all I was afraid of dying.
Fear paralyzed hope. Until about six months into treatment when I realized that we're all dying, every living one of us, just some of us faster than others and some of us know it. Every day we live, we're dying.
The weight rolled off, because I was simply human. I had today, just as everyone has today. No one is guaranteed tomorrow.
Understanding brought acceptance, acceptance brought peace.
And Alexa was simply a cat, with a good life every day she was alive, even the days she was sick. It wasn't more or less than promised because there are no promises. Her life was just the way it was. And that was enough.

Feel free to giggle at her wiggling, think about rubbing that luxuriant belly and note the warning of her waving paws.

Copyright 2009-2017 Kathleen Scott, for Hill Country Mysteries. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Rufous Hummingbird Migration

When we lived in the country, we operated a year-round hummingbird hostel. Gardens for food and shelter, feeders for quick energy. Bird books don't show hummingbirds in the Texas Hill Country in winter. Guess the birds don't read the books.

From Spring-Fall, we're flocked with Black-chinned and Ruby-throated hummingbirds.  The Black-chinned begin arriving in March. A generous number stay through summer to breed and rear young, sometimes as many as three clutches.  Many linger into fall to tank up for flights to Mexico and Central America.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds pause in the Hill Country in spring and fall on the way to and from distant breeding and wintering grounds.

But in the last decade, a noticeable number of Rufous hummingbirds have begun to overwinter in our region. For four years running a young male would arrive at our flowers and feeders in mid-December. 

Why? Maybe the young guys couldn't migrate without more bulk, or wanted to be first in line to get back to far-away breeding grounds. Maybe our winters have been warmer than average. And maybe more people are creating gardens and keeping feeders out for hummingbirds.

Cornell University's experts say that Rufous hummingbirds are "the feistiest hummingbird in North America". They need every bit of spirit to make migration treks from as far north as Alaska to Central America and back. These tiny birds weigh less than a nickel, yet they navigate and fly untold miles twice a year.

Adult Rufous hummingbird
The little guys would stay with us until the first Black-chinned hummingbirds arrived in mid-March. The next year a new youngster would arrive. We never saw 'our' Rufous hummers again. But our feeders kept them alive through winter; and the pleasure of watching them grow into adults remains.

This year we abandoned the scorch of Texas summer sun for some time in Colorado. Pagosa Springs--a cute historical town on the San Juan River among the San Juan Mountains. I knew I'd miss my Black-chinned hummingbirds at home...but the chance for cool days and mountain air was too enticing.  

What I didn't know was that we'd arrive during Rufous hummingbird migration. We'd see males and females, juveniles and adults flocking to the feeder hanging on our deck. We were privy to diving and chattering and aerial wars of ownership. One female perched above the feeder, claiming it as private property. 

It was so much fun, I'm sharing a few seconds of pure winged happiness with you too.

Copyright 2009-2017 Kathleen Scott, for Hill Country Mysteries. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Yellow passion vine, (Passiflora lutea)

The best presents are those you least expect.

Especially if the gift isn't easy to find. 
Yellow passion vine flower

So you know I did a happy dance a few years ago when I discovered a short length of Yellow passion vine (Passiflora lutea) beneath an oak at our newly-purchased home. 

I didn't expect we'd find any native plants beyond a few tree species. The house is in a small development where the land had been scraped bare except for big trees

Yellow passion vine isn't rare but I've never seen it for sale in a nursery or available online. You either have to luck into finding one on your land or know someone who can share.

Zebra longwing butterfly on lantana
Folks who love butterflies will also count this species a gift because it's a host plant for Julia, Mexican & Gulf fritillaries, and Zebra & Crimson-patch longwing butterflies. Butterflies visit yards with food sources...but the thing they are programmed to do before they die is reproduce. So if you want butterflies in your yard, put in plant species that butterflies need for laying their eggs and feeding caterpillars.

Butterflies will lay eggs on other passion vine species too, including Passiflora incarnata, commonly known as Maypop. Both varieties have naturalized in more than 20 U.S. states, generally from the midwest to the Atlantic and south. Maypop can also be grown in pots and moved indoors in winter.
Gulf fritillary butterfly caterpillar on Maypop passion vine (Passiflora incarnata)
A word of caution, the world of passion vines includes about 500 species. Plant native passion vines. Exotics may kill caterpillars. Avoid red-flowered passion vines, and those with scientific names ending in coccinea and racimos. Butterflies will still lay eggs on those but the caterpillars can't properly digest them and won't live to become butterflies.

Yellow passion vine leaf
If you'd like to scout your area for Yellow passionvine, look in dry part-shade areas. The vine has tri-lobed leaves and climbs or trails about 12-15 feet long in good conditions. Don't worry if it climbs a tree, it doesn't dig into bark.

The vine grows well in limestone-based, well-drained soils and will get by with modest water once established. 

Yellow passion vine is deciduous in the Texas Hill Country but I didn't find a reference to confirm that for all regions.

Yellow passion vine flowers, May-September
the vine gets enough sun, it produces inconspicuous yellowish-white flowers May - September.

The Ladybird Wildflower Center website says that flowers are followed by purple or black berries attractive to birds. But in the two locations and eleven years we've been graced with this vine, I've never seen fruit.

What we have seen, beside the appealing foliage, is butterflies. 

Gulf fritillary on lantana
Copyright 2009-2017 Kathleen Scott, for Hill Country Mysteries. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Downtowner Kitchen, fighting lionfish invasion one plate at a time

Some people find peace through meditation. Others pray.  For the nearly-twenty years I lived in Florida, I found equilibrium underwater, scuba-diving on coral reefs. When I stepped off the boat and the water closed over my head, reality changed.  Noise diminished. The horizon faded. I felt weightless, buoyed by air in my equipment and balanced by long slow deep breaths. 

As I heard the mechanical rasp of my breath in the mouthpiece, my heart-rate slowed. I n h a l e, feel the lungs fill. E x h a l e,  a slow stream of bubbles dribbled up, disappearing in the blue.

Below and around were reefs, natural cities of plants and animals in browns, blues, greens, oranges and yellows. Soft corals waving in the current, lacy sea fans rippling. Bright yellow tube sponges tucked into crevices. Hard corals as green and brown boulders or shaped like pointed antlers. 

In, around and above it all lived a plethora of fish. A vibant meditation of form, color and movement.

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Photo credit: Daryl Duda, courtesy of
But in the last decade, an imported predator released from home aquariums has begun to decimate reef fish populations in the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. 

Lionfish photo courtesy
Lionfish, a carnivorous fish with long venomous spines, is native to the Indo-Pacific. The fish live in warm-water reefs, reproducing year-round. According to NOAA, a mature female releases about two million eggs a year. As lionfish have multiplied in non-native regions where there are no natural predators for it, reef fish populations have suffered.

In recognition of the danger, groups such as REEF, a nonprofit marine education and conservation group, have begun to fight back through education, lionfish roundups and more. Reef even publishes a lionfish cookbook to encourage folks to harvest and eat the fish.

As longtime REEF members, my husband Denny and I have contributed reef fish surveys to the database and are happy about efforts to reduce the lionfish threat.

But what could we do in the Texas Hill Country? The answer appeared at happy hour last week after a friend called me to meet her at The Downtowner Kitchen. Over a glass of wine, she told me they serve lionfish. 

Sounded good to me--I'm tickled to help make a market for lionfish by eating them at a fun cafe in New Braunfels. Good eating and good for the planet.

The Downtowner Kitchen in New Braunfels has an eclectic feel.
We like The Downtowner anyway for its cool vibe, interesting menu, local brew-list and eclectic wines.

Not to mention a local DJ named Barrett Read who spins "Soul Brunch" on the weekends.

Last week I went twice. And I'm letting you in on it now so you can feel like a local too when you ask for lionfish. You won't see it on the menu even though it's a regular offering, flown in fresh from Florida. Owner/Executive Chef Chad Niland hasn't printed it on the menu because he doesn't want to disappoint if weather interferes with the harvesting, which is done by spearfishing.

For folks who wonder about eating venomous fish, it might set your mind at ease to know that the fillets are from the sides of the fish, away from the venom in the dorsal, anal and pectoral spines. Still curious? Check this video:

Most folks like lionfish because it's a mild white fish with a delicate texture when cooked. Chef Chad does several lionfish dishes, each with separate appeal. Some are only served at dinner. I've tried three but others are on my radar.

Grilled lionfish at The Downtowner Kitchen in New Braunfels, TX.
The most showy and biggest is a whole grilled fish delivered to the table in a satiny sweet, salty, slightly tangy glaze. The fish takes 30 minutes to grill, time for patrons to enjoy an appetizer, glass of wine and good conversation. By the way, the spiked rice underneath is addicting, and your choice of side-dish is included. Priced at $40, it's plenty for two and would make a great date-night dinner.

Blackened lionfish sandwich, The Downtowner Kitchen, New Braunfels, TX.
Denny enjoyed a blackened lionfish sandwich, accompanied by house-made pickles and crisp lattice chips. The portion of fish was moderate but the seasonings added to the oomph. $18.

My favorite was an appetizer, lionfish ceviche. The preparation requires 24 hours for the fish to "cook" in the lime juice. It's only available on weekends to take advantage of additional traffic. Any uneaten ceviche is discarded at the end of each day.
I loved the sweetness and al dente texture of the fish, the interplay of tang from lime juice and minced jalapenos, crunch from red onion, an herbal note of cilantro, a touch of smoothness from aioli.  Served with fried tortilla chips, it was a happy marriage in the mouth of sweet, salty, hot and sour. Reminded me of Caribbean visits. $20.

A note about prices, lionfish is hand-speared and flown in, just two fillets per fish, so the price per pound of usable meat is not low. But it's a price worth paying, both for the experience and for the reefs.

Want to enjoy yourself and feel good about helping the coral ecosystem? Check out the lionfish dishes at The Downtowner Kitchen.
The Downtowner Kitchen

Then tell me what you think.

Copyright 2009-2017 Kathleen Scott, for Hill Country Mysteries. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Drought again

Drought is a backward-looking depression. You don't know you're in it until the rains haven't fallen and the aquifer has. I know more about drought cycles than I'd like--most of our 11 years in south-central Texas have been lived in them. 

We're there again. While most of Texas is fine, our county is so dry it's classified "Severe Drought".

I've been expecting it.  During our eleven years here, the climate has alternated years of drought interspersed with periods of wet, like a giant climatic see-saw. Big swings up some years, hard landings others.

Denny and I moved to Texas in 2006, the tail-end of the worst drought in decades. The next year, 52" of rain soaked our place, twenty inches above the region's 30 year average and on par with tropical Florida. 

Then less than five years later, 2011 scorched the land with more than 60 days of temps at 100F or more while rainfall was less than the Chihuahua Desert.  
In the last few years, rain filled our rivers and aquifers. We've had to carry umbrellas in the car and plan river outings based on weather.

Starting into this drought, we're better off. But daily highs are up to fever levels, 100F and up.

Folks are watering lawns more to compensate, and as they do, aquifer levels are falling. Stage 1 water restrictions have been enacted, reasonable rules that make sense even when we're not in drought.  But other restrictions loom unless weather patterns and watering patterns change.

It's time to speak up for smart ways to enjoy our yards and conserve water at the same time--reducing the size of water-thirsty lawns by converting areas to mulched beds, patios and paths; and watering wisely in amount, method and timing. Using native plants that evolved for our place, adding compost and mulch to shield roots and conserve moisture, and using drip and soaker hoses to deliver water directly to plants, without the waste and evaporation of sprinklers.

Lawn as an accent, surrounded by water-wise gardens that feed and shelter birds and pollinators. Sustainable beauty.

Copyright 2009-2017 Kathleen Scott, for Hill Country Mysteries. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.