Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Let there be light!

It's Christmas season, and with it comes lights, in great abundance and profusion.

But first: an insect! Haven't had one for a while, so here is a Leaf-Footed Bug for your education and amusement:

Now, back to the lights. It seems that right after Thanksgiving, people rush out and start decorating their houses. The first two weeks in December glow brighter each night as more lights come online.

Surprisingly, from what Alan has been told at work, most people decorate their gardens long before they actually get their Christmas tree. We have got ours now and it's looking all festive :-)

Here follows a series of pictures taken on Brodie Lane, and Denbar Court just off Brodie. Denbar Court is particularly impressive; a whole entire cul-de-sac in which every house has a dazzling display.

These first two sit opposite each other somewhere around Brodie and Sesbania Drive. The first one won their local lights contest.

Now we're in Denbar Court.

So, if I don't post again before the holiday, I wish all our readers a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Gardening part 3

Well, the guys have done their thing and we now have a shiny new bit of landscaping.

I really like what they have done. It has masses of potential to grow, and time will see it getting bigger and each plant will fill in the spaces that exist now.

Here's an overlook to compare with the previous two (clicky):

Here's some various angles on the area.
This is the riverbed/stream area. The first time we get a heavy rain, this will sort itself out, the rain should wash through here and start making it look more natural.

The grasses in this area are Big Muhly and Weeping Muhly; they will grow relatively tall. There's some Lindheimer's Nolina mixed in here too.

Below is the gravel patio. This looks very new right now but as we use it, will blend into the landscape. You can just see anti-deer netting around the Possumhaw Holly (with red berries on) and stakes either side of the other new tree, the Mexican Buckeye, which will turn bright pink in the spring.

It is also surrounded with Texas Sotol, a small spiny leaved thing which has tall flowers when it blooms.

This is a Sago Palm, in front of the riverbed.

Here's a Texas Lantana. I like these, they are bright yellow and orange and attract loads of butterflies. We have a couple of these; they will bush out nicely. Behind it is a spineless Prickly Pear cactus and behind that is the Mexican Buckeye.

There's also some Twisted-leaf Yucca plants around, and one Texas Kidney Wood which apparently has very lovely scented white flowers.

So, watch this space... I'll certainly be doing so. Waiting for the spring and summer, to see how this progresses!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Gardening part 2

Well, the chaps have been working hard today. We have a bunch of rocks starting to form the faux riverbed area and the bed for the new patio has been laid. They'll be back tomorrow and expect to get it finished by the end of the day.

Here's a Bobcat carrying one of our new trees. They've put it in the garage overnight to stop it getting attacked by deer before it is planted. They will eat this tree but it's big enough that once it is in the ground, it will survive and grow taller than the deer.

The Bobcat was also used for carting all the gravel for the patio across to the site. They only had it for one day so tomorrow's gravel will have to be done by shovel and wheelbarrow.

Here's a look at the whole site (weird perspective due to photo stitching):

Click for enlargement.

The patio is clearly visible on the right. Behind this area will go two new trees. A few plants are in the ground but most are waiting until the rock area is finished.

It looks good from the ground - expect further updates in due course!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


A quick update to mention the garden. We're having some work done on it, so watch for updates showing progress.

Here's what it looks like now:

(Click on it to see it bigger)

Here's a couple more gratuitous shots from my wanderings downtown last night.

Austin skyline with the Zilker Park Christmas tree visible.

Underneath the tree. It's really quite large.

Christmas lights on Congress Avenue.

Right, stay tuned...

Thursday, November 22, 2007

of Flying and Brewing

At the top of this page, it says something about Alan and I wanting to find some interesting aeroplanes and beers. This post is to prove we're on the right track :-)

First up, some flying. It was Kingsbury Fly-in last weekend, at which we were looking forward to seeing some interesting vintage aircraft, both resident and visiting. Unfortunately the weather was decidedly iffy first thing and the clouds remained dull and overcast all day. However they did stay relatively high up which meant that flying could proceed, but visitor numbers were down nonetheless.

There's a nice chap with a Great Lakes who had promised me a flight in exchange for some pictures, so here's me in the front seat, about to enjoy half an hour of cruising over the Texas countryside with a couple of wingovers thrown in for good measure. We flew to Lockhart for some fuel and general adventure, then back to Kingsbury.

Once back on the ground, I was then bundled into a Cub with the intention of doing some air-to-air shots of a Rearwin Sportster. It was decided that I'd have much better camera range if I sat sideways, so here's me in a very unorthodox flying position!:

Yes, that is how we flew, with my legs dangling out. Cubs only go about 60 mph so it's just like driving my Jeep with the top down. (I do tend to stay inside the Jeep though) Click here to see the results.

So that was a fun day :-)

Right, I promised you brewing earlier so here we go. Alan has been making lots of tasty brews right here at home and yesterday saw the latest batch being created.

We start with a visit to Austin Homebrew Supply to buy a mini-mash kit. This consists of a big tub of malt extract, a bag of grain and some yeast and hops. The exact recipe will depend on the beer style that you're brewing but the actual brew is done in a big metal pot. You boil water with the grain in for an hour or so, then remove the grain and pour in the malt extract, then boil it for another hour or so, adding hops at various intervals as required.
Here's the brew pot assembly with the grain bag in place:

Note the attendant giant grasshopper just below the gas bottle. We had a group of these hanging around and watching us brew. They seem to like watching things happen; we went out later on and they'd all gone when we came back - obviously bored and gone to find something else to look at ;-) Here's a closer view:

The quarter next to it for scale is slightly bigger than a UK 10p, for our British readers.

Anyway, back to brewing. Once the boiling is done, you cool the wort (in the sink, with ice in water that you dunk the whole pot into) until it is down to 80F. Then you pour the whole lot into the brewing vessel. We use a 5-gallon plastic bucket. You attempt to measure the original gravity with a hygrometer. The one we brewed yesterday was a strong'un though and had way too many bubbles so too bad! Now we throw in the yeast (two phials this time, it's a doozer, this one - usually one phial is sufficient) and put the lid onto the bucket. The lid has an airlock to allow CO2 gas to escape. Stick it in the cupboard and wait for a day. By then you should see lots of bubbles rising through the airlock and then your beer is on the way!

After a week, the beer is siphoned into a secondary brewing vessel. In our case this is a plastic carboy bottle. It then sits for another couple of weeks.

Then it's time for kegging the beer! We use a keg rather than bottling it; much less hassle. In true Blue Peter tradition, here's one we prepared earlier (the blue topped cylinder; the smaller one is a CO2 cylinder):

This is one we just started drinking, that Alan made three weeks back. It's an IPA and is the best one Alan's done yet. Very nice it is! We decided to carbonate it naturally this time with extra sugar (the other way is to force-carbonate with the CO2) and it's worked very well.

And look, there's a few other bottles of tasty malt beverage in there too. How did they get in there, I wonder?

Cheers :-)

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Camping in East Texas, and other things that amuse me

I've had a complaint! I've been told off for not posting in ages, so here I am, back again :-)

(If, of course, there's anyone left reading and you haven't all given up in disgust!)

Been busy lately, hence the lack of posts. It's full-on airshow season here so my weeks have been spent going to flying events, sorting through pictures, work, going to flying events.... In the UK, flying season runs from about April to October with the peak airshow months being July/August. Texas summers are too hot - audiences don't want to stand about in the heat all day and the warm air makes for very bumpy flying, so flying season is best in the Spring and Autumn and you end up with a split season.

So, we've had fly-ins almost every weekend for the last month or so, and the odd airshow mixed in. I managed to wangle airside access at New Braunfels which was fantastic, they put me right under the main display axis of the show line, just off crowd centre, so I was able to get some very close shots at interesting angles. Some pilots took advantage of this and aimed right for me too! This particular show is facing into the sun - last year's shots were all silhouettes - but not this year! Pictures are here.

The following weekend saw us travelling to East Texas, further than we have been before, about 4.5 hours drive to Reklaw, which is a tiny town in the middle of the Piney Woods. There is quite literally nothing around except trees for miles and miles. We actually drove about 2 hours from Waco to Reklaw and passed only three towns on the way, with nothing else but fields. This truly is a big country.

Anyway, we arrived at Flying M Ranch which is a privately owned ranch just outside Reklaw itself. This is owned by two aviators, who just happen to have carved themselves a runway in their patch of forest. It's a canyon of trees about 3500 feet long. Looks impressive from high above. Every year for about the last 20 years, they have invited aviators to join them for a weekend camping and flying.

This year, somewhere in the region of 500-600 aircraft showed up for the weekend. It was fabulous!

There was constant aero noise and action from dawn to dusk. Even by the time we arrived, about 14:00 on Friday, there were already two hundred aircraft present. On Saturday, you just couldn't move for aircraft. Clouds of them would appear in the approach, with another one touching down every few seconds. Heathrow, Silverstone; pah! As you might imagine, I have one or two pictures floating about on my site ;-)

I managed to talk a nice man with an Aviat Husky into taking me up for a ride about 1pm on Saturday, the busiest time, so I could get some aerial shots of the site. Those are on pages 2 and 3 of the Reklaw pictures. It looked great from the air, there were winged dots covering the entire place, up and down the runway, everywhere.

The weather was utterly perfect which helped. Azure-blue clear skies, very calm winds. Camping was a little chilly the first night but we were fine, wrapped up warm in our tent and sleeping bags. It was great to camp again, the last time we used this tent was at Stoke Golding in July 2006. We got up on Saturday morning quite toasty, actually, and got in line for breakfast at about 07:30. (The catering was quite excellent; plenty of good food and swift-moving queues) There we are in our shorts and T-shirts as it was a very pleasant morning. A little dewy and fresh but generally lovely. It dawned on me that every single other person in the place was dressed in jeans, coats, hats, gloves, balaclavas, scarfs, earmuffs and combinations thereof.... Shortly afterwards a chap came over and said, "This is Texas! You're meant to be cold!!" which caused much mirth! We had a few other people say similar things after that - but it wasn't cold, honest....!

The first evening was kind of quiet as everyone seemed to have vanished and gone to bed. We hung around with our stash of beer but ended up going to bed ourselves as there didn't seem to be much happening. A lot of people camped but a lot of others were staying in local hotels/motels so had gone from the site.

Ah yes, the Beer Situation. We figured, on the journey up there, that if we took beer with us it would just get warm in the car so we'd get some en route so it would stay cold. Logical, eh? Only one snag. Most of East Texas is pretty dry. And our East Texas shooting buddy, Larry, didn't warn us!

We didn't see a single beer shop from Waco onwards. We stopped at garages which sold all kinds of things but no beer. Not a drop. Or wine, whiskey or anything else. On arrival at the ranch we were still beerless, and we noticed everyone else had brought cases of their own. (Aircraft can only carry so much weight. Every campsite in the place seemed to have minimal camping gear and copious amounts of beer....!) So we had to ask a local, and were told that the nearest beer shop was 15 miles further along the road.

15 miles later, we found what looked like an oasis in the desert. We went in and were directed into the giant cooler in the back, which is basically a room full of beer. There was ample amounts of Bud, Miller, Bud Light, Coors, Miller Lite, Coors light.... just as we began to despair of finding anything good to drink (asking, "Do you have any Dogfish Head 60?", of the store owners drew the blankest look I have ever seen) we found a dust-covered box in the corner of Samuel Adams IPA, and another lonely box next to it, filled with Shiner Bock. We brushed the cobwebs off this lot and cleared them out!

Retreating back to our aviation haven, we put the beer in a giant coolbag with a load of ice and were set for the weekend. Woo-hoo! Moral: When visiting East Texas, bring your own beer!

Anyway, the weekend continued in the same excellent manner. There was a larger dinner on Saturday night. Alan won a hat in the raffle and we also won a silent auction (bought some 1950's aircraft prints). We chatted with some microlight pilots around the communal campfire and sank a few of those hard-won beers. Next morning we were away sharp as we had things to do, but we'll definitely be going back next year. What a gem of a place!

Now, some of you may have heard of a small chain of shops here in the US called Wal-Mart.

I had to go in there yesterday for some stuff Alan was after. This place really is a source of amusement, and a camera phone comes in handy. Feast your eyes on the following!:

A board game that I don't think you'll be seeing in WH Smith any time soon:

For those sticky aircraft that just won't come off your windscreen:

(it's an acetone-based paint stripper, actually)

Hunting/shooting/fishing shops sell a lot of things to attract animals. Scents, noise makers and pheromones are all common. This one is doe urine estrus. Ickiness aside, you gotta love the name!

(We are still inside Wal-Mart by the way. They sell ammo alongside the milk in here)

I didn't see too many vacuous buxom blonde ladies hanging around this sweet/cake stand but you never know...

And finally, proof that we are still within reach of civilization when we visit the grocery store, HEB:

Yay for Heinz Tomato Soup and Jaffa Cakes!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Of Wheels and Targets

Here's a gratuitous Jeep shot, just because it's been a while and I like this one. Took it on the highest level of the parking garage at the apartment, before we left.

So, Alan and I have been going shooting recently. Some guys from his work, Larry and Neil, go regularly and have been getting us to go too. We have mostly been going to an indoor target range on the southern edge of town which is pretty cool. The guys have been very generous in letting us use their equipment and we have been able to sample a good variety of things. Here's the results of a typical session:

The last couple of weekends, we have gone to try some clay pigeon shooting at a different place across the other side of town. This clay centre is great, they have plenty of space. And it's right next to a model aircraft field, so there's the occasional extra target ;-)
(We are told it has happened, too!)

We had never done clay shooting before so Larry explained it all to us thus:

Skeet shooting is where you have a tower on the left and the right, out of which come two clays, one from each side. These are called high house and low house. The trajectory of the clays is always the same. You stand somewhere on a semicircle in front of this. If you're in the middle then you're shooting 90 degrees onto the clay trajectory. If you stand elsewhere then you get more edge-on to it so you can vary how you shoot them.

Trap shooting is where the clay is released away from you so it starts in the same place but can vary the angle it is flying at, so you stand in the same place but are aiming in different directions to follow it. (I think this is meant to be like pheasants)

Sporting clays is where you wander around a course of shooting positions, each of which contains two clays and they are set up in all sorts of ways. They change them each week too so you get different things each time you go. It's a bit like golf with shotguns, only you get to play different courses in the same place.

So we ended up doing sporting clays last week, which is the hardest discipline but the skeet ranges were taken already. Alan was really very good at it. I was less good but I did hit a few; one exploded in a big starburst which was most satisfying :-)

This week there was a competition on the sporting clays circuit so we did some skeet instead. Larry was very kind and spent the whole time instructing Alan and me. He'd also brought his 28 gauge as well as his 12 gauge so I used the 28 which is smaller and lighter but also shoots the shot in a smaller pattern, so it's harder to hit things than with the 12 gauge.

Alan was very good (again) and I remained less good... Did manage to hit a few things. I seem to have trouble getting ahead of the target and I'm often a bit low too. I wonder if years of tracking a target with a camera is putting me off. Although I am OK at moving the shotgun, whereas Alan seems to find that harder; he often stops midway. I guess we all have our pitfalls.

Note to those who might be wondering: This is target shooting we're doing, both indoors and out. We have no desire to be shooting live things. There, it's said.

Anyway, we both enjoy the shotguns for sure, and we will be doing more of it, I have no doubt.

And finally, I have a new toy:

This is a Trikke. And actually, it's not a toy; no child's plaything, this, no sir. This thing is actually pretty big, those wheels are eight inches in diameter and it's built for adults. (You can get smaller ones for kids too.) You ride this with a foot on each plate. All three wheels remain on the ground so it's as stable as it gets.

The propulsion comes from turning it. You have to kind of tip it into a turn and then it's like skiing; you slalom left and right to make it go. It's the falling into each turn that gives it forward motion. It does need to be on the flat or downhill; hills are Bloody Hard Work verging on Almost Impossible, although this will be improved with time, practise and strength.

It's a workout machine on wheels. I rode it for an hour yesterday and had rubber legs at the end of it. Luckily, the roads around the house are very flat with only a slight hilliness, which is great for riding this thing. If we didn't live with such roads nearby I probably wouldn't have bought the machine. It does fold up so it will go in a car if needs be, too.

It's good fun. Although I think I've had my monthly quota of funny looks in the space of two days! This is not a machine for the shy ;-)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A hummingbird

Here's a lady Ruby-throated Hummingbird on our new window-mounted feeder. She seems to visit pretty often now.

At least it was sunny when I took that shot. We've had 1.86 inches of rain today and counting...

Still, we reclaimed some of our garden from the jungle this weekend so there's a bit of progress!

Thursday, September 06, 2007

A long weekend

In the last post I said the time was up for our apartment. We have now given back the keys, so we are now several dollars a month better off but we've also lost our handy town-centre crash pad. Never mind.

Here's a couple of pictures by way of a farewell.

Remember the parking garage? They're still building around it! All the retail units and more apartments (I'm guessing) are being finished now. It seems to have taken forever to get this stuff built. We do at least have a coffee shop and a sandwich shop open now, in the already-existing retail units. And the farmers' market is there on Wednesday afternoons now which is actually pretty good. Damn shame these things didn't start up a bit sooner but there you go.

One last look at the kitchen. See how lovely and clean it is!

The guy that inspected the apartment was visibly amazed at the fact it was clean and intact. We have heard horror stories of people punching holes in walls and kicking doors down, so when he saw clean carpets and unmarked walls he was ecstatic. Which doesn't say a lot for the rest of the tenants.

Ah well, we're out of there now. Now all I have to do is tidy the mountain of boxes in our new house...

It was a long weekend due to Labor Day so Alan took the Thursday and Tuesday off last week and we had a nice loooong weekend. We were vaguely planning on maybe going somewhere but that didn't happen in the end.

Saturday was good though. I'd heard of a fly-in within driving distance - let's go!

Off we set to La Grange, about an hour and a half's drive east of us. There we found a very friendly airfield with plenty of visiting aircraft, whose pilots had all come for the monthly barbeque lunch. We naturally partook of this and found it to be some of the best Texas barbeque we've had yet; it was really very good. And then Alan won the raffle, so we came home with a huge brisket which will be feeding us for the next week.

(gratuitous aeroplane pic - more from La Grange here)

The weekend continued on with us doing a few things we'd been putting off, like getting our road tax and other boring things.

Then Mark and Jessica had a barbeque to which they invited us and some other friends, so off we went. We spent a very pleasant afternoon. As we arrived at Mark's house, we were greeted by his local deer population:

There's thirteen of them in that picture. Mark is way out in the country and his deer are a lot less scared than the ones by us. They certainly didn't seem bothered by humans too much anyway.

They also have a window-mounted hummingbird feeder, so I was able to grab a few shots of those. This little guy is a ruby-throated hummingbird, only about 3 inches long:

The next day, we went straight round to Lowe's to buy one of these feeders. We have been getting hummingbirds at our other feeder but this kind brings them right close. Expect more photos in due course...

Thursday, August 30, 2007

A whole year

Today, the lease runs out on our apartment, which means we've been here for one year exactly. Where did that go?

More later, but here's a beastie I missed out from the last round-up:

Monday, August 20, 2007

Creatures round-up

Here's the latest batch of creatures we have spotted.

In addition to these, we have spied a snake! I think it was a Texas Brown Snake although it seemed to be more yellow and black in colour, but that's the closest match I can find. It was about 12 inches long, hanging around in the long grass at the edge of our lot.

Something has been attacking our bird feeders, too. Often we'll come out in the morning and they will be decimated, with all the seed on the floor. Probably squirrels or raccoons.

Here's a very big giant grasshopper on our window. He was about four inches long and slowly walked up the wall.

This is a Ground Beetle. They're quite cool, they's about 2 inches long and they scurry about, minding their own business.

This nasty mess is a big gaggle of daddy long legs. They are not true spiders as they don't have two part bodies, but they do have eight very long spindly legs. They cluster together like this, often under the eaves, and if they feel threatened the whole mass of them vibrates. They're a bit creepy but apparently they eat insects so they're probably doing more good than harm.

A nice butterfly to counter the creepiness above :-)

An Eastern Dobsonfly sitting on our gate post. It is a type of lacewing, about 2 inches long.

A Crablike Spiny Orb Weaver spider. This is a wierd little thing, with spikes on. He is pointing downwards in this photo. It made a huge web, with thick bits in the silk, like pulsations as he built it. Hard to describe.

A Rabid Wolf Spider. This is a small one, about an inch and a half across. We have one or two big ones resident in the garage which are about twice that size and have more black on them. These are good guys, they eat insects.

A Ground Skink. We have discovered these live in the ground at the bottom of the house. It is the smallest lizard in North America; this one was about three inches long.

Finally, here is a Hummingbird that got itself into our garage the other day. It was trying to fly out of the window. This window can't be opened, so I spent a merry 40 minutes trying to entice it out of the garage with every bright red thing we own dragged outside to attract it. Hummingbird instinct is to fly up, not out, when cornered so of course the daft thing wasn't finding the door. Eventually I hung the hummingbird feeder where it could find it and left the vicinity. Ten minutes later it was gone.

Thursday, August 09, 2007


This last month (because it's almost that long since my last post), it has done nothing much else except rain.

Rain in the morning. Pause just long enough for me to stay dry during my morning walk. Clouds thin a little, hope just starts to get piqued, then hope is shattered as rain starts again by midday. Rain all afternoon until about 22:00 when you might, if you're lucky, glimpse a star peeking out from behind another cloud.

It seems we are living in a parallel world. Both the UK and Texas have seen severe flooding this month. My parents in Gloucestershire both lost their water supply when the local water treatment plant got flooded. Meanwhile, the lakes by northwest Austin which were 40 feet below their normal levels two months ago have now more than peaked about 7 feet above their maximum. All the local dams were opened and the newspapers were filled with images of raging torrents of water. British newspapers carried aerial photos of villages turned into islands. Here's some good pictures of British floods while Texas was also in the news.

Closer to home, we mostly stayed in. Our rain comes in very heavy downpours, all at once. The houses around here all have ditches in the front of the yard to carry water through; all the driveways have pipes underneath. Here's one of the ditches during one heavy rainstorm:

Here's someone's front garden. A house further down the road has part of the creek running through it and they had even more water.

One night we went out for some food. The storm started during our meal and when we left, the Jeep was in water almost up to the wheel rims. We got wet, leaping into the vehicle. It was the right car to bring though - the journey home was interesting to say the least. I've never seen flash flooding rain like this. All the roads were completely covered. One field was sloping towards a section of road; the road was awash. Of course we waded through this lot and got to the level crossing which stands between us and home, and a train had decided to park itself thereupon. So we had to make a longish detour, wondering if the low water point would be crossable or not. As is turned out, the raincloud didn't reach that far so we were OK. In fact, our main route home might have been impassable as that road _was_ under the cloud.

This is Alan and I, waiting inside my Jeep for the rain to stop. All around us was bright sunshine, except for the raincloud dumping water onto precisely this bit of parking lot. We gave up waiting and got wet (again). By the time we came out of the store, it was all gone.

I relocated my weather station last week, so the rain collector is no longer underneath the roof overhang. Now it can count rain properly and won't under-read as it has been doing. Since I did that, the storms have gone away.

Sorry Central Texas, it was obviously all my fault!

Meanwhile, people continue to notice we have bought a house. This means people like mortgage financiers, banks, credit cards, DIY and homeware stores etc. Some of these are a pain but some are good. The stores have been sending us 10% and 20% off vouchers. And then a lady from the Buda Chamber of Commerce turned up one day with this big basket of stuff, including coupons and free samples from all the local businesses, as a welcoming package. Isn't it nicely presented?

Items of Americana: The Wagon.

You see people with these things everywhere, a lot of times with small children being towed in them. We wanted something to drag stuff around the garden, but didn't want the bulk of a wheelbarrow. This is so typically American, it had to be done!:

And lastly (for now), I was in Kyle yesterday. They are doing major works on their high street. Here's a really mega giant chainsaw! I love the fact it's parked outside a martial arts studio - gives a whole new meaning to 'Karate Chop'!