Saturday, February 27, 2016

Houston Zoo

Our second day in Houston we headed for the zoo. We rode the Metro again since it is so convenient. But when we arrived at the stop and tried to buy tickets the machine said there were no tickets available??? Meanwhile the electronic sign said the train was arriving in one minute. We rushed to the other end of the platform to the other ticket machine but it was totally dead. The train arrived, we looked at each other, and got on. Only to find there were two ticket inspectors right in front of us. We stood next to them the whole trip feeling guilty! I gave Shelley a hard time about her new life of crime :-)

Google Maps told us to get off at one stop, but there was a stop labelled "Houston Zoo" which we figured had to be the right one. No, Google was right. The zoo entrance nearest the zoo stop wasn't the main one and it wasn't open. Oh well, it was a nice walk through the park!

The zoo is quite large, both in area and in animals, but I wouldn't say it was one of my favorites. We found the layout confusing, and it seemed like there were less opportunities to take photos without dirty glass or bars. And there were even more huge groups of screaming school kids than usual. But it was a nice sunny day and there was lots to enjoy.

When we first walked in, one of the zoo staff had an African Pygmy Falcon out on her arm.

African pygmy falcon

I always like to see the meerkats. There were lots of them and they were lively running around.


Sea jellies (not "jellyfish" since they're not fish) are fascinating creatures. This time I made a more abstract image. It almost looks like smoke.

sea jelly

The chimpanzees were out enjoying the morning sun. It was a bit cool so they were carrying blankets around with them and spent most of their time wrapped up in them. Black and white seemed to fit the mood of their expressions.


Even the orangutan was looking pensive.


You don't usually see the rhinos lying down, let alone in a bunch.


Like many zoos, you could pay extra to feed the giraffes. Even if you don't participate, it's often a good chance to get some close up shots of them. But today the giraffes were on strike and refusing to come over to be feed. The keepers weren't quite sure what the issue was. Maybe they wanted to renegotiate their contract :-)  But there were ostriches in with the giraffes so I took more shots of them instead. (with nice back light)


Usually the lions are sleeping, but we were lucky to have one in a lively mood. It went in the water several times, played with some floating balls and drums, wrestling them out of the pool. And we were lucky to find a viewing spot with no glass or bars.


The cougar (mountain lion) wasn't so lively, but still beautiful.


Outside the zoo is a nice big park with a lake in it. There were some funny looking geese/ducks around.


And we were surprised to see a beaver in the lake. It didn't seem at all concerned about all the people around.


For more photos see all 21 photos as a slideshow or overview

Friday, February 26, 2016

Houston Butterflies

We stopped in Houston because it was where our flight to Costa Rica left from. We didn’t really know much about it or have much planned to do. We stayed at the historic Lancaster Hotel which was nice. We deliberately picked a place “downtown” but that turned out to be of dubious value. Downtown Houston seems to be a very sterile place. Lots of big office buildings, a few restaurants and coffee shops and that’s it. Not even any shopping to speak of (not that we were really looking for shopping.)

But we soon discovered the museum district, park, and zoo, which kept us busy for a few days. It was quite far from downtown, but the Metro worked well to get there. The first day we visited the Museum of Natural Science (as opposed to the unnatural science?) spending most of our time in the butterfly garden. We also saw the new National Parks IMAX movie starring Conrad Anker and Max Lowe. I loved the Chronophage (time eater) clock with a grasshopper escapement (invented almost 300 years ago).

Yellow Tiger Longwing

Rice Paper



Tawny Owl


For more photos see all 28 as a slideshow or overview

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Days of miracle and wonder

These are the days of miracle and wonder
- Paul Simon

The desert is a different place. The lack of water has led evolution down different paths than more temperate climes.

Ocotillo are like bundles of sticks with thorns, when it rains they grow leaves and flower and then drop them to go back to waiting.

ocotillo flower

Bright purple prickly pear cactus with spines longer than your fingers.

cactus buds

Century plants (agave) bide their time for years, storing food and water for one glorious final fling, sending a giant stalk skyward to flower and seed. A final fling that leaves it brown and dead.

Crucifixion thorns and resurrection plants.

Blind prickly pear cactus with no obvious spines, just fuzzy patches which turn out to be spines after all.

Cats claw bushes, also known as "wait a minute", which is what you need to do if you make the mistake of brushing up against them.

Palo verde trees that do without leaves and just go with green stems instead.

Despite the lack of water, the Texas Bluebonnets (lupines) were blooming, although only beside the roads as far as we saw.

Texas bluebonnets

Javelinas named after the Spanish for spear, that look like pigs, have feet like deer, and are actually related to hippopotami.


Roadrunners that would rather run than fly and who bribe their girlfriends with tasty lizard morsels.

Other birds are the same as what you'd find elsewhere, like these great horned owls that hung out around the Cottonwood Campground.

Great horned owl

Although there weren't many flowers, there were still a few butterflies around. This one was quite small and looked nondescript from a distance, but was actually quite pretty close up.


There were a couple of bright red birds around - vermillion flycatchers around the campground and northern cardinals near the rivers.

Vermillion flycatcher

Northern cardinal

Earless lizards have wonderful coloring on their sides if you can see them up close.

Earless lizard

The day we left the weather changed and it actually rained a bit.

Big Bend landscape

For more photos, see all 45 as a slideshow or overview

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Big Bend Abstracts

I had enough abstract photos from Big Bend that I thought I'd post them on their own.

As usual, I took a bunch of reflection photos - Santa Elena Canyon was good for this. Cactus are also good subjects. Not to mention, mud, trees, clouds, grass, and seeds. In other words, pretty much anything and everything :-)


cracked mud

flowing water







cactus skeleton


For more photos, see all 39 as a slideshow or overview

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Big Bend Outer Loop

First stop, visitors center to get our backcountry permits. We barely told the ranger our plan before she had to tell us, sternly, that "people die out there!" It was all I could do not to roll my eyes. In all the 40 years I've been doing trips and registering for them, I've lost count of how many times I've run into that attitude. I realize that part of their job is to prevent people from killing themselves (and then suing!) But if that was the goal then you'd think they'd ask what experience you had. But they rarely do. It's as if they send the rangers to classes on how to be negative and discourage anyone from leaving the pavement. Occasionally we have tackled more extreme adventures that I can see them being sceptical about. But these days? Not so much. We were registering for what is probably the most common backpacking trip on the park. Granted, it's the desert and water and heat are factors. So ask a few questions and make sure we're prepared. Don't just give some canned melodramatic line. Sheesh!

She seemed even more disapproving when I said we planned to do the loop in the opposite direction from most people, although she didn't offer any reason why. In terms of doing the steep sections with less load of water, it made sense to me. And it’s a loop, so the overall vertical is the same. Plus, if you're antisocial like me, going backwards means you only see people briefly as you pass them going in the opposite direction :-)

Originally we had planned to to take the shuttle to the park (like we did on our last trip). But then we discovered that we needed to cache water for the hike, so we ended up renting a car. (That wasn’t all bad since it let us explore more of the park after the hike.) We dropped off our water in the bear proof box near Homer Wilson ranch. (There’s also a potential spot to cache at the intersection of the Juniper and Dobson trails, but it requires a 4wd high clearance vehicle to access.)

It was nice to finally set out from the car after shuffling gear into the pack and hoping not to forget anything important. It only takes a few hundred yards to lose most of the people. Soon after you leave behind the noise of civilization. You don't really notice it till it's gone. There was a roadrunner in the parking lot to see us off.


Then just the slow steady comfortable tread. Even with the pack it's quite pleasant. I took the ability to hike with a backpack for granted for so many years, now I wonder how many more years I'll be able to do it. I walk a little more carefully these days, not from fear but simply in hopes of making my knees and hips and feet last as long as possible. I use hiking poles, although I don’t really like how they get in the way of taking photos.

Mexican jay

I like hiking in the desert with the bizarre cactus and the stark desert terrain. But by definition there's little or no water which means carrying it. Luckily on this hike the most you need to haul is two days worth - about 8 litres (= 8 kg = 18 lbs). Since our packs are light to begin with (maybe 25 lbs) it's not too bad. And you drink it so you're not carrying the full weight for long.


Coming back from the outhouse at our first campsite we spotted a skunk. It seemed to be staying in the same area so I went and got my camera and came back. Sure enough it was still there. I made Shelley a little nervous trying to get close enough for photos. I guess she didn't want to share the tent with someone who got sprayed by a skunk! The skunk appeared to be feeding. It was moving around slowly, stopping every few feet to dig shallow holes in the ground. Presumably finding insects of some sort, although I'm not sure how it knew where to dig. Smell? Sound? If I got too close or made too much noise it would stop and look at me and its tail would go up. But if I froze it would soon resume feeding and its tail would drop again. I expect skunks to have a white stripe but this one's back was pretty much all long white fur. It reminded me of a colobus monkey.


There were also a couple of deer wandering around in the area.


We spent a couple of hours at the Dobson ranch avoiding the sun's worst in the shade of the old building. A large wasp had been buzzing around us at lunch and I tried several times to photograph it but it was too skittish. It landed on my foot but as soon as I reached for my camera it flew away. It landed on the wall but when I approached it left. Finally it stopped in the door frame and I got a few shots, but not great. But when I wandered around the building a bit later I found one (maybe the same one) on the grass, a more natural background, where it cooperated for me. The are quite impressive - large yellow abdomen, long legs that hang down when it flies, about an inch long. We saw them throughout the trip.

Paper (?) wasp

The next section was a bit more unpleasant - uphill with two day’s water, in +33c, full sun with no shade. When we reached the junction of the Dobson and Juniper trails we were excited there was a truck at the end of the road - shade! We sat and ate our lunch leaning against the tires.

Morning light

The last day the weight of my pack fell back below the magic threshold where it ceases to be a painful burden and goes back to being a reasonable load. (I have to admit that threshold has dropped over the years!) I've never been much for big loads, for me 65 lbs is half my body weight!


One of the rules for backcountry camping in Big Bend is that you have to be 100 yards off the trail. That's a standard rule and I'm all for it. I have no desire to camp beside the trail. A volunteer ranger we ran into stressed several times not to use the obvious cleared campsites right beside the trail. But the terrain doesn't agree. Everything here has needles and thorns. 100 yards of bushwhacking off trail is going to leave you bleeding and impaled. And the ground is hilly, with few level spots. And even if you find a spot where it's feasible, then what? Rip up all the cactus and bushes? We searched for spots off the trail, but in the end we disobeyed the rules and camped on one of the already cleared, level spots beside the trail. In terms of our impact it seemed the better choice.


a room with a view

The climb up the Juniper trail is quite long and steep, but the trail is good with well designed switchbacks, and with light packs at the end of the trip it went easily. Once we reached the top it was an easy downhill couple of hours back to the Chisos Lodge where we left our car.


For more photos see all 26 as a slideshow or overview