Backyard Birding: An Elusive Painted Bunting

During our weekend excursion out to the Das Jager Haus, I had the privilege to spend my days under the shade of a small pecan grove capturing images of many beautiful and bountiful central Texas native birds. The sheer quantity of hummingbirds, titmice, chickadees and cardinals was absolutely insane, but there was one bird that took my breath away; the painted bunting.

For those of you who know of these Painted Buntings, you know their beauty is unparalleled (at least in this part of the country). The bird itself is a bit of a rarity and can be difficult to spot due to their shyness, size and habits. Up until this weekend I had only ever seen them in field guides and kind of considered them to be the “white whale” of birding. I certainly never set out to find one so when I did this very weekend I was kind of shocked. I had read somewhere that people seek them out and rarely find one.

A “kaleidoscope of color,” the painted bunting is diminutive in size and tends to hide out on the edges of prairie grass in the shrubs and trees along the periphery. Apparently they do not like dense tree cover and it is a necessity to have a clean water source nearby to encourage their visitation and nesting. Additionally, they will visit feeder that are protected from “bully birds” and enjoy a variety of seed, but have a particular fondness for millet.

I managed to capture some images of this bunting about 30 yards away hopping around the ground near a water hose junction just beneath a small grove of trees beside the cabin. Apparently the bird was enjoying the loose connection of the hoses where, further investigation would show, a small pool of fresh well-water had pooled. Shortly after the photo-shoot, the bunting moved closer (about 15 yards away) underneath the small feeder where the titmice and chickadees had created a mess beneath the feeder. 

I managed to get a few more images before the small bunting flew away back to his grove. I did not hear his song and only captured a handful of clear pics, but from what I read/hear, that is a pretty impressive feet in itself.

Das Jager Haus in Fredericksburg, TX

We spent another long weekend just outside of Fredericksburg in a new (to us) cabin in the hill country. This time we didn’t go terribly far off the beaten path. Lately we seem to be far enough out that we don’t have any service on our phones and even the satellite is spotty. I by no means have a problem with that, but sometimes it is nice to have the ability to contact restaurants, shops and the owners if something should go awry. Anyway, we stayed at the Das Jager Haus and it was absolutely an amazing weekend.

We arrived mid-afternoon on Friday after about a 2.5 hr. Drive out of the Austin burbs. The ride out was typical fare for this part of Texas and especially beautiful once out beyond Dripping Springs. I’d imagine someday buying a few acres from a rancher out here and doing a homestead/cabin type setup for long weekends and maybe to retire to someday.

Anyway, about ten minutes outside of Main St. in Fredericksburg, we rolled up to the gate, punched in our code and drove the van up the windy drive to the cabin. I have to say, the esthetics of this cabin are very whimsical at first impression. The cabin looks almost like something out of a fairy tale. 

One of the things I liked most about this cabin was the accommodations both inside and out. The cabin has a lot of seating space outside from which to enjoy nature, and for a photographer like me, to snap pictures of all the native birds and assorted wildlife. Inside, all the comforts one would appreciate are thoughtfully provided. There were even a set of binoculars hanging in the kitchen for those who may not own a pair. It was all these innumerable little conveniences that added to the enjoyment of the weekend… not to mention the large garden tub!

I’m pretty sure I spent about 95% of my waking time out in the “yard” capturing images of all the birds, deer and llamas. What a wonderful time we had just relaxing in nature. In fact, I spent so much time outside that at night while sleeping I could still hear all the bird-song in my head. Kris would later tell me that it wasn’t in my head and that at night, with the tin roof and proximity to the trees that, “… just because you go to bed it doesn’t mean all the wildlife does…”

Sometimes it is hard to believe all this wonderful natural beauty is so close to home. What will be even better is when it someday becomes home. We have got to get some property out here!

Las Vegas: “Mojito-Face”

It was the Friday after Thanksgiving and Kris and I had reservations at Carmine’s in Caesars Palace for 8pm. Instead of catching an Uber (and having spent a small fortune already), we decided we would walk the mile or two to get there as we would be covering familiar ground and there were a couple things we wanted to experience along the way. 

Walking out of the main entrance of the MGM, along the pedestrian bridge, we crossed to the New York New York Hotel/Casino and slipped around the corner and down the escalator to street level. We wanted to see what the plaza near the T-Mobile Arena was like at night as we had heard the water feature was incredible and that there was regularly live music.

As we got closer we heard the band at the stage performing more clearly. I’m not the biggest Metallica cover band fan, but it was cool nonetheless. After a few minutes we continued on, and turned into the main plaza of the arena to view the LED water wall feature. I have to say, it was pretty cool in the daytime, but at night, WOW! I mean it isn’t the fountain at The Bellagio, but cool nonetheless.

Basically, there are 6 foot tall walls made of river rock material that have a gently flowing waterfall over their surface. The “waterfall” is lit by a color changing LED strip that casts different colors of light along the water creating a pretty cool rhythmic effect. We walked around the area for a short period and rejoined the mass of pedestrians clogging all the thoroughfares. 

The walk from the MGM to the restaurant in Caesar’s Palace is a mile “door to door.” I would say with our brief detour and the throngs of people it took nearly an hour to get there. I will be the first to admit that I was a bit “hangry” upon arrival. Something about swarms of Chinese tourist grandparents stopping at inappropriate places to consult maps, make phone calls, take photos and plan future roadblocks has that effect on me. Don’t get me wrong, not all Chinese tourists are like this, and I wouldn’t dream of stereotyping their incredible culture. The prior link leads to a very well written article about this phenomena, check it out!

Anyway, I wasn’t rude or anything and as soon as I got my mojito I was good, in fact I made “mojito-face.” For those of you who don’t know what “mojito-face” is, see below. We have “pre-mojito-face,” “”mojito-face” and “post-mojito-face.”

Carmine’s is a family style restaurant which means the portions are pretty robust. We were a bit scared of how much food we would end up with so we badgered our waiter into oblivion and he obliged us by providing detailed schematics, ounces and serving sizes. In the end we elected to order a Bolognese, another round of beverages and finished things off with a slice of NY cheesecake. 

With everything right with the world, we wandered Ceasar’s Palace with contentment and eventually returned to our VRBO.

Las Vegas: Excess on Every Corner

If there is one thing spending a little time in Vegas has taught me is that excess is standard fare. Whether you are at the Hershey’s store at the corner of NYNY, The Shops at Crystals at the Aria or merely in the lobby cantina of your hotel, you can have whatever you want as long as you are willing to pay the price.

I’d like to start this story by sharing our experiences as the aforementioned sites. The first night, after dinner and our show, we were wandering around and came upon the Hershey store… Oh my God! Not only do they have a Statue of Liberty made from Twizzlers, but they have this massive wall of vending machines full of Peanut Butter Cups, Kisses and Assorted Hershey Bars! 

I was in pre-diabetic heaven, I could feel my A1C rising with every heartbeat! Perusing the store I found Hershey Kisses the size of my head, A tube of Rolo’s the size of a landscape timber and an assortment of other gargantuan offerings. With willpower waning, Kris and I left the store after snapping about a million pictures on our phones.

Further down Las Vegas BLVD, after passing The Park and T-Mobile Plaza, we rounded a corner and proceeded up to The Shops at Crystals next to The Aria. These designer shops are a different kind of excess… Imagine dropping $15,000 on an evening gown or half that on a pair of shoes! This place was insane in every sense of the word. I have never felt so far out of my element as I did wandering around in there. 

In addition to having some pretty incredible swag, they had an incredible foyer with an art installation entitled “Glacia.” Apparently these cones of frost grow up out of the water and then slowly melt back in place over the course of the day. Apparently people place pennies and other coins on the cones of frost throughout the day and then they drop into the water as it melts… pretty cool (pun intended, lame I know).

If that isn’t enough excess for you, I’d finally like to share a selection from the food court at the MGM abutting our high-rise suite at the Signature. We all know Vegas does things “over the top,” so why would a food court be any different. Well, this food court was huge and had the standard fare with two exceptions, portion size and cost. Nothing is cheap in Vegas, but you certainly get what you pay for. Kris and I dined in this food court three or four times on our long weekend and probably packed on a few pounds in the process. Below is a sampling of the offerings we enjoyed from the Bonanno’s NY Pizzeria.

The last excessive thing I want to bring up, as it relates to cost at least, is the cost of a bottle of wine in the kiosk at our hotel. Kris and I aren’t wine snobs (beer snobs , yes) and typically don’t spend much more than $12-16 on a bottle of wine. Being our last night in town, we decided to scoop up a bottle of wine. After perusing the selection, we decided on an old familiar “14 Hands: Cabernet.”

Typically in central Texas you are looking at about $10-12 for that bottle, here in Vegas… $24. Now I know that doesn’t break the bank, but twice as expensive… that is Vegas in a nutshell… excessive in almost every conceivable way.

Las Vegas: In search of “Big Elvis”

Before our Thanksgiving journey to Las Vegas, a patient at my office mentioned that I should seek out “Big Elvis” while in town. The patient had mentioned that the imposter king visits a couple of casinos on the strip and sometimes downtown venues on Fremont St. He also mentioned that there are different hours on different days and that part of the fun of exploration was trying to find where he would be next.

I’ll totally go on the record and state that I am not an Elvis afficionado. I have nothing for or against the guy, just not my thing… but I was down for the challenge Apparently this particular Elvis I was in search of is quite rotund and does an excellent impersonation of The King. Rumor has it he frequents the piano bar at “The Flamingo” and “Harrah’s” on Fridays. With only this half-assed information to go on, we knew he was somewhere in this city and it was on us to find him.

Knowing full well that I could probably find his schedule and appearances online, but not wanting to cheapen the search, Kris and I decided to play it safe and continue exploring along the west-side of Las Vegas BLVD by NYNY (where we had left off the night before having done Mandalay Bay, Luxor and NYNY) and loop around near The Wynn to the east-side, then head South toward the MGM. By taking this route we would eventually reach The Flamingo and Harrah’s.

One thing I have learned about Vegas on my recent trips is that, after a short while, all the casinos feel the same. I mean, exceptions can be made. I have never seen anything quite like The Bellagio or Ceasar’s Palace, but the rest all just were a bit of a blur. Here is some of that blur…

Many casinos later we walked into Harrah’s and heard the sounds of “Ring of Fire” bellowing out in that peculiar Elvis style coming from the bar. As we crept around the corner we saw a huge crowd gathered and a rather large man with pork chop side-burns, shades and really greasy hair belting out the tune into a microphone. Had we found “Big Elvis?” We had.

Pete Vallee as “Big Elvis” singing “Ring of Fire”

I wouldn’t go as far as to say this was worth the journey, however we had planned on hitting all the casinos on the Las Vegas BLVD this weekend and this one was clearly on that list. Which in fact was why I took on the challenge of locating “Big Elvis.” We hung around for a couple songs then the big man went on a break. We left satisfied and headed back to our suite at the MGM Signature, richer for the experience, but not rich enough for some of the boutiques we had passed by during the day…

Las Vegas: Visiting Hoover Dam in a Pink Jeep

Keeping with our weekend’s Vegas theme, Kris and I got out of the city during our last day and visited Hoover Dam. I must say, all this things you hear about Vegas being in the middle of nowhere are absolutely true. Anyway, maybe we should begin at the beginning…

We had just finished our morning coffee and were trying to decide what we wanted to do for our last day in Vegas as we had already walked the entirety of the strip and had a number of unique experiences. Running a quick Google search for excursions, I stumbled across a tour group called, “Pink Jeep Adventures.”

I found a number of cool trips that were full-day, half-day and some that were just a few hours. Searching the list of adventures there were only a few that were not sold out. Apparently many folks had the same idea as me. There were two remaining with room for Kris and I. We had to choose between Joshua Tree National Park and Hoover Dam. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to go see Joshua Tree Park however I didn’t wish to be in the “Pink Jeep” for several hours to drive there… not this morning and not with a belly full of coffee and pastries… Hoover Dam won out in the end and we hastily gathered up a morning’s provisions and headed to the lobby awaiting a call from our driver and tour guide.

Mere moments later our guide Phil called and we wandered outside the main lobby to find a bright pink van awaiting. Phil introduced himself and gave us some water and snacks and ushered us into the van. Phil was an awesome guide (we could tell he had been doing this for years). As we careened down side streets from casino hotel to casino hotel we picked up several other couples who had a penchant for hydroelectric power.

During the drive out of town, Phil regaled us with tales of old and new Vegas. There is a very colorful history in this city and it would seem like it has been thriving by keeping an eye on the horizon of entertainment and changing to meet the times. Headed out of town we drove past several new high-rise hotel and convention centers, the T-Mobile Arena (home to the NHL’s Golden Knights) and the new NFL stadium which was nearly completed at this time.

A mile or so out of town things began to become quite desolate (think Tatooine from the original Star Wars without the Jawas). Eventually the road became rougher and the terrain changed to a canyon filled landscape and in the distance Lake Mead and portions of the Colorado River were visible.

Driving through a small defense department roadblock, we were allowed onto the Hoover Dam Road that runs atop the dam itself. With Lake Mead on one side and the spillway and Colorado River on the other, it was truly an impressive site. On the Arizona side of the dam we departed the van and the tour began. As always I missed the entire thing because I was taking pictures of anything and everything. Honestly, I think I have a disease… Anyway, I gathered that the spillway has only been activated a handful of times in the dams existence and that at this time it was well below capacity as could be seen from the lines in the escarpments above the lake’s surface.

Further along the dam we took some snapshots at the state lines of Nevada and Arizona then all the touristy images one would expect. Moments later the tour went into the actual dam and we got a look at the turbines and innards of the edifice. Now, I like hydroelectric power and riparian rights as much as the next guy, but I never expected to see the grandeur of a facility such as this. Apparently the Hoover Dam provides electricity to much of the geographic region as well as controls the water distribution for nearly the entirety of the American Southwest!

At the end of the tour we emerged in… the gift shop. That is so tacky, I mean, how come it always has to be IN the gift shop. Naturally, I perused the shop and spent too much for a magnet, postcards and the like. Loaded back into the pink jeep we returned to Vegas and spent the rest of the day wandering in and out of casinos on a search for “Big Elvis.” 

In regards to the Hoover Dam, my words do no justice to the magnificence of this feet of engineering. Maybe if I paid attention I would have gotten more out of the experience and had more to share. I’m going to blame it on being in a daze from the glitz and glamour of Vegas and our pending hunt for “Big Elvis.” 

Las Vegas: VRBO in Vegas

There is just something about Las Vegas. Like a moth to a flame, I just keep being drawn back. Unfortunately, due to the current travel restrictions in place both Kris and I will not be spending Thanksgiving at the MGM Signature this year. I was going through some of our iPhoto albums and found some pics from our VRBO suite as well as from around the city and wanted to write-up a quick blog post to share them.

As you know, I am a big fan of VRBO and do pretty much all of our cabin and vacation rentals through their website/service. This last Vegas trip was no different. We found a condo in one of the MGM towers (which is considered off-strip) that was quite affordable for a holiday weekend. If I’m not mistaken we were on the 29th floor and had a pretty decent view of the southern portion of the strip from the balcony.

I have to say that the suite was quite nice and incredibly convenient since there was easy access to the MGM and the southern portion of the strip VIA the walkways and the free tram. This was incredibly handy when we left the first night for Thanksgiving dinner at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Restaurant in Caesar’s Palace. Our Uber driver had us over there in record time, in fact we got his number and called him direct to bring us down to the Mandalay Bay for Cirque De Soleil Michael Jackson about two hours later.

We had a great time wandering the city the next day and then took off to the Hoover Dam the last day we were in town. All in all it was an excellent trip and a damn shame we won’t be back this Thanksgiving. I’m not too sure what we will be doing, but we did just pick up some camping gear, so maybe we will be able to visit a state park or something and camp out under the stars.

Backyard Birding: A Swarm of Sparrows

I’ve got sparrows coming out of my… trees! The level of activity around the bird-feeder is absolutely out of control. There will consistently be four or five sparrows on the feeder and many down in the grass and garden at any given moment. I do enjoy having all the little fellows out there, but I am beginning to think they will chase off everything but that angry red finch who visits periodically.

After doing a little reading about House Sparrows, I have come to learn that they are oftentimes mistaken for Tree Sparrows. The difference is apparently subtle, but oftentimes the species can be identified based upon the color of the crown or nape. According to Google;

“The simplest way to tell the difference between house sparrows and tree sparrows is to look at their crown! Tree sparrows have a solid chestnut-brown head and nape, whilst house sparrows (males at least) have a light grey crown.”

Either way, I suspect I have both types in the yard at the moment.

I should also mention that sparrows are a portend of good luck in many cultures while also symbolizing companionship, happiness and hope (thank-you insomnia). Maybe it isn’t such a bad thing to be swarming with companionship, happiness, good luck and hope!?!

Anyway, the House Sparrow associates with humans and is one of the most widespread and abundant songbirds in the world. I suspect that this may be the primary reason that I have so many. Not to mention since the feeder and sanctuary are in full effect it could only serve as a multiplier. Don’t get me wrong, I love having all these little songbirds around, but I would like more of a variety. I have not changed up the food yet as I have quite a bit and do not want to waste it or have six or seven types opened up at once. 

I think I will be moving to more of a sunflower seed mix next and hope to begin to attract some warblers and swallows, but we will see. Anyway, there is no shortage of photo-ops of the sparrows, enjoy!

A Mammal Named Jack (Mamsy)

Kris and I have a house-cat named Jack. I’m pretty sure we adopted him sometime in 2013 from a crazy cat lady named Brenda. When I say “crazy cat lady,” I say that with a twinge of humor as she isn’t really crazy at all, just unique. This tale isn’t about “Brenda – The Crazy Cat Lady,” this post is about our adopted mammal Jack, or as I like to call him “Mamsy.”.

Jack is an orange tabby. If you are familiar with the disposition of an orange tabby, then you know they are insanely affectionate and constantly on the prowl for food. Our mammal especially likes to go “crumbing” in the kitchen and holler if he sees one headed in that direction. To the untrained eye you would think he is starving as he will sit or pace in front of the pantry door where his food is kept. Don’t let him fool you, he eats way more than he probably should.

With that said, like many other cats, he has a penchant for getting into things. His level of curiosity is unparalleled. He lives to get into trouble. So much so that in the beginning we used to call him “Jailbreak Jack.” If we would even crack a door to go outside he would be trying to get through and make a run for it. Sometimes he would manage to get passed us, but he would then cower in a nearby shrub or get all low in the grass and whimper… pathetic.

Anyway, Jack is about 15 or 16 years old now (we adopted him at 7 or 8). In fact, we aren’t really sure of his age as his chip had some incorrect information on it when we brought him to the vet. The common idea is that he is at an advanced age based on his “sagginess,” loss of fur and temperament… he is kind of a dick. 

Physically, you can tell prior to his adoption he was in a bad way. When we got him, we arranged a veterinary visit at which time the vet discovered he had terrible periodontal disease and an abscess or two in his mouth. In the end he lost a couple teeth (one canine) which causes him to look like he has had a stroke. The missing teeth also cause him to haphazardly toss food in every direction while eating… he is a very messy eater.

He is also missing about half of an ear. We assume that could have been from one of his misadventures where he escaped a house and was tagged by animal control. Apparently when they catch strays they clip their ears (the strays not the animal control people are clipped)… Additionally we learned that he has a large scar on his tongue from some other misadventure and also has a lot of scars below his ears due to a mite infestation years before. Honestly, he is a wreck.

Then there is the list of things he is terrified of…

  • Plastic shopping bags
  • Loud footsteps
  • People wearing shoes
  • People other than Kris and I
  • Vacuums and Brooms
  • Alanis Morisette
  • The garage… just to name a few

Anyway, it is his birthday and I thought it would be fun to post some pictures I took of him with a new portrait lens I picked up last week. 

Backyard Birding: House Finch in The Wild

Stumbling into a black hole of “Animal Totem Symbolism and Meanings,” in my search for information regarding the pretty red house finch I spotted in the backyard last week, I learned a couple interesting facts I would like to share here. First, apparently the finch is a symbol of exciting and joyful times on the horizon. With this knowledge, I hope that we all spot some of these red house finches.

Second, the coloring of a house finch is not a naturally occurring pigment. In fact, the pigment depends on their diet. If the bird had a really healthy diet it will exhibit bright red markings, whereas poorer diet would show by the colorings being more of a muted orange-yellow. 

Lastly, I need to learn to get to bed on time and not stay up randomly searching google about finches…

With this insomnia fueled knowledge of the avian variety, I scoured my iPhoto collection on the laptop to examine some of the red house finch images I had captured the past week. After examining the images I had captured, I determined that there are at least two different red house finches visiting my feeder. One particular finch is more reserved and spends most of her time in the sage scoping out the feeder while the other is a bully who chases off all the sparrows, blue jays and doves. 

He is a real bastard; a pretty bastard, but a bastard nonetheless. Anyway, hope that red finch sightings or not that you all are having a joyful summer!

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