Sunday, May 20, 2007

Atricle: Hunting horned lizards

A horned lizard or horney toad

When I was a kid, my parents took frequent trips to Las Vegas dragging their five kids along and parking us at an arcade or at the hotel pool. This contented my older siblings but my younger brother and I could not be so easily contained. After our parents disappeared onto the gambling floor, Stephen and I headed out into the desert just behind the hotel.

The hot sand beyond the strip crawled with secretive life. We marveled at enormous ants clearing rings around the bustling entrances to their colonies. Turning over rocks, we watched in fascination as centipedes and scorpions scurried to find new hiding places. But our favorites were the lizards and most of all the horny toads.

There’s a lot to love about a horny toad--or horned lizard as they are more properly called. Of course, their thorny exterior makes them uniquely charismatic. Occasionally one would manage to jab us with the sharp horns that rimmed the back of its head and we would imagine ourselves as T. rex’s, in mortal combat with the great armored herbivores of the Jurassic.

The most endearing characteristic of horned lizards was how easily they were caught. Their evolutionary survival strategy is camouflage. Unlike the speedy race runners or desert swifts, horned lizards don’t run off when approached. Usually they hunker down and hope you’ll pass. To two little kids that made them the best lizards ever.

I suppose those memories are why horned lizards hold such fascination for me. I thrill every time I see one. I’m willing to travel a distance to get that rush too. So last weekend I headed south to Chaparral Wildlife Management Area to get my annual horned lizard fix.

Even in Chaparral where horned lizards are still fairly common, they’re not easy to spot. The lizard hunting plan is to drive, drive, drive and then drive some more, slowly going up and down the roads of the wildlife management area staring at the pavement. It’s not unusual for hours to pass without seeing anything.

I shouldn’t say that though, there’s a lot of other stuff to see. This time of year, the chaparral is teaming with flowers and butterflies. Birds including caracaras, painted buntings, vermilion flycatchers and roadrunners can be seen. Maybe a pack of javalina will cross the road. Or a diminutive Texas tortoise. On this trip we were amazed to spot two bobcats. And there’s the occasional western diamondback rattlesnake for excitement.

Our patience on this trip was rewarded with a stunning ten horned lizard sightings. Naturally, I had to photograph each and every one. Along with their official status as the Texas State Reptile, all three horned lizards species living in Texas are protected. The reason for their decline is not fully understood but may be related to pesticide usage or the invasive Argentine fire ant. Horned lizards are specialized ant predators but they need big, juicy ants like harvester ants, not small, stinging ants like fire ants.

It’s hard to believe that horned lizards were once common in Hays County. There are probably a few areas where they can still be found. My niece, who lives only about a mile from me, found a dead one on her driveway last year but I’ve never seen one anywhere around here. Kids growing up in this area will not have wonderful memories like mine. That’s a real loss.

To learn more about horned lizards go to:

Photo: This lizard has one skewed horn. Sometimes they'll tilt their head backward to stab you with those things.Photo: The colors seem bright but they blend very will with the lizard's environment.Photo: My daughter Coral and her friend Carl serving as horned lizard spotters on the top of my Jeep.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Article: Taking a stand

FM1626 near Jerry's Lane.

While attending the wiener dog races a couple of weeks ago, I wandered by an information booth on proposed highway improvements in Hays County. A large map showed expansion of FM1626. I didn’t think much about it. Change is inevitable. I took some literature, impressed with its glossy, well-organized presentation, and headed back to the stands. In the excitement of the event, I forgot all about road improvements.

Driving, I dismissed the primitive roadside signs admonishing drivers to vote no on road bonds. They were probably the work of special interest groups or people who want time to stand still. Again, the issue faded from my mind.

But this week my husband received an automated phone call to local residents stating that County Commissioner Jeff Barton was giving a presentation on the road bond and its impact on FM1626 in just a couple of hours. We didn’t have anything else to do, the meeting was conveniently located and the call peaked our curiosity. We decided to attend.

There was quite a crowd and it was obvious they weren’t happy. Many had been to a previous meeting where they’d learned the transformed FM1626 would not include an access point to their subdivision. Some were concerned about the affect of the expansion of the road from a rural two-lane farm-to-market into a five-lane conduit for traffic from points south into Austin. Others wanted to know how they would be compensated for the degradation of their homes or properties that proximity to this high-volume thoroughfare would bring.

For the most part, Rick and I sat back and listened. We’re not used to being involved. And our property is a good distance off FM1626, expanding the road would probably increase our property value if it had any effect at all. But it was hard to miss the tone of the meeting, which was that it had already been decided and this thing is a great deal, a once-in-a-life-time opportunity that has to be taken right now.

At one point a local resident asked how long it would be before there would be road improvements if this bond is defeated. The reply was thirty years! Barton later clarified that some improvements would undoubtedly take place within that time but there would be no major work on the level of what the bond would support. It felt like we were all being sold a used car, if you don’t snap this beauty up today, it’ll be gone tomorrow!

And don’t look under the hood. Rick asked a couple of questions about possible risks to the project. What if the community does not grow as expected? What if the project comes in over-budget? I’m not sure how legitimate those concerns are but Barton and the representative for the contractor who would build the road seemed to think they were irrelevant.

I remember when FM1626 used to be a Mecca for bicyclists. Traffic has gotten too heavy these days so you don’t see many anymore. I wondered if we couldn’t build a road with bike lanes to help preserve some of our local heritage as we expand. Wouldn’t it be nice if local kids could ride their bikes down to the new YMCA at the corner of FM1626 and FM967? Not to mention there are elementary and middle schools right there. Could we build a road so that kids could bike to school?

The answer is no. Out of $172 million dollars, there’s money for cars only. Barton explained proudly that $2 million--less than 1.5%--of the total budget could be spent on extras to preserve local flavor. He and the contractor explained how lucky we were. They might even use some of that money to spare a few existing trees. It occurred to me that those very trees were what used to attract bicyclists.

Something snapped for me in that meeting. I’m sick of the way big roads destroy local communities. Where I work in Austin is less than ¼ mile from where we normally eat lunch but no matter how nice the day, we have to drive. There is no safe way to get there without a car.

I don’t even own a bike but I am never again going to vote for a road that doesn’t include bike lanes.

Update: The road bond failed! I guess FM1626 will stay as it is for the next 30 years.

Photo: Near the corner of FM1626 and FM967. Where's all the traffic?

Photo: Looking south toward my road, Jerry's Lane, at the top of the hill.
Photo: Looking north from the previous location. No wonder people used to like to cycle here.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Article: Fish-And-Chips

One day my coworker (who is also my daughter) peeked over her computer monitor and said, “I just made up a sentence with my name in it five times.” Aside from the fact that she should have been working, I wondered what was so remarkable about a sentence that contained multiple instances of her name. “What is it?” I asked. “Coral Coral Coral Coral Coral,” she replied. It wasn’t an interesting answer.

I informed her that a repetition of her name five times did not constitute a sentence. I knew I was in for a fight though, Coral has a master’s degree in linguistics and it’s just like her to pull some linguistic trick out of her hat to legitimize her claim. It took a while for her to explain but she was right, it is a real sentence.

Interpreting the sentence hinges on following definitions of the word coral:

1) the color coral, a pinkish yellow

2) the marine invertebrate coral that makes coral reefs

3) the verb coral, which means to color something coral colored

4) the name Coral, for example my daughter

Using those definitions, the sentence becomes: Coral (1) coral (2) coral (3) Coral (4) coral (1). In other words, coral colored coral animals color my daughter Coral coral colored. It’s a difficult sentence to decipher but I was impressed that her name had so many meanings. And there’s even another one, the unfertilized eggs of lobsters are also called “coral.” How versatile she is.

The coral sentence got us thinking about other people’s names. There was only one other person at work who had a name that could be made into a sentence. “Rob, rob Rob” wasn’t nearly as impressive though, using “rob” twice as a proper name and once as a verb and requiring a comma.

A few days later I overheard two coworkers discussing the meaning of a section of some computer manual. One read a phrase to the other. “File file file,” he said without even realizing it. I laughed out loud even though I understood the sentence. In typical computer-speak it meant to file a file whose name is represented by the word "file".

What about the sentence: I want to put two hyphens between the words Fish and And and And and Chips in my Fish And Chips sign? That’s a perfectly normal sentence that just happens to contain five instances of the word “and” in a row. But what if you thought that sentence was confusing? Suppose you thought it’d be easier to interpret if it were written: I want to put two hyphens between the words “Fish” and “And” and “And” and “Chips” in my Fish And Chips sign.

I don’t know if the sentence really needs those added quotation marks so I might have to ask someone. To do that I could say: Wouldn’t the sentence “I want to put two hyphens between the words Fish and And and And and Chips in my Fish And Chips sign” be clearer if quotation marks were placed before Fish, and between Fish and and, and and and And, and And and and, and and and And, and And and and, and and and Chips, and after Chips? That sentence makes perfect sense and yet it contains an unbroken sequence of twenty-one instances of the word “and.”

Sentences such as these incorporate homophonous phrases. These are strings of words that either are the same (as in the Fish And Chips sign example), have the same spelling but different meanings (as in the Coral example) or simply sound the same. An example of the last is: To tutor two tutors in tutus is to tutor two tutued tutors too many.

Next time you wonder why computers can’t understand English, ask yourself instead how it is that people can. When you think about it, it’s a miracle we can understand each other at all.