A school of blackbirds

One of my favorite  sights is the crazy blackbird flight school offered each Spring as hundreds or thousands of birds launch into flight together, wheeling and turning in unison.  We have a very healthy stand of bamboo grown from a few starts given to us 20 odd years ago by our friend Joe.  That little patch has grown into a dense grove that now provides shelter for hundreds of birds all winter.

frosty bambooHopefully the bamboo has survived this particularly brutal winter.  As Spring approaches, the bamboo residents are becoming more and more noisy.  At night I think there’s a windstorm raging and realize it’s the birds rolling over in their sleep in unison. In the morning and evening they put on an airshow going about their business.  I believe these are mostly red wing blackbirds, since I hear their territory calls coming from the bamboo, but apparently flocks often contain starlings and other blackbirds as well.

There are two groups to begin with; they seem to coalesce into one, but then split again, with one group settling into roost.  It would be interesting to know, but I can’t tell from the video,  if the  group that peals off to roost first is made largely of members of one of the two original groups.

Flocking is mesmerizing to watch.. It was modeled in a classic artificial life routine called Boids by Craig Reynolds.  His flocking model defines only 3 steering behaviors:  “Separation –  steer to avoid crowding local flockmates; alignment – steer towards the average heading of local flockmates; and cohesion – steer to move toward the average position of local flockmates.. … Flocking is a particularly evocative example of emergence: where complex global behavior can arise from the interaction of simple local rules.”

It’s cold.

It’s -13 outside.  I was trying to make snow;  I poured boiling water in a mister and was spraying it around outside.  I think the droplets were too small;  what came out looked like white steam and rose quickly out of sight.  Bigger droplets were definitely frozen.. Anyway it was inconclusive.  morning_moon_DSCN1165I checked the WoodMaster, which needs a lot of attention when it’s this cold, and the controls were dark!  After checking switches & breakers, sure enough the power was out.

I can heat with wood or propane, but without power, I have no blowers or pumps, so we’re really screwed with a major outage.  There was no weather happening, other than unusual (um, record breaking) cold, so I didn’t think it would be long before the heat came back on.  It was about an hour, and the house only lost a degree or two.  I had laid out the Mr Buddy heater and the Coleman lantern, figured I’d wait till 50 degrees in the house before lighting a match.

In the plan is a standby generator.

Brand new cria

We have a new addition!


Brand new Stardust and mother Izzie. The gnarly pink blob is placenta.

Baby Stardust was born last Sunday.  She was born healthy around noon, and immediately started exploring the pasture.  Unfortunately, she and her mother Izzie didn’t connect in the nursing department.  We gave the baby a colostrum supplement, but true alpaca colostrum products are not available.  Izzie’s teats were soft, and she wasn’t producing milk, so we started bottle feeding with Ultra24 milk replacer.   We gave Izzie a shot of oxytocin in the evening, and she was almost immediately producing milk.  So between Ultra24 milk replacer and what we could get from Izzie,  we got Stardust on a bottle immediately.  stardustIMG_1270But it was touch-and-go for a while if she would make it.  Without colostrum from the first nursing, alpacas don’t develop an effective immune system.  Even though Izzie was making milk, they still weren’t making the connection.  She developed pneumonia, but the vet  blasted her with antibiotics, which helped a lot.  In fact, after the antibiotics, they connected on the nursing thing!

On Friday we took baby Stardust into the vet clinic for a plasma transfusion, which supplies the specific alpaca antibodies she would have gotten from colostrum, and now she seems to be doing great.  She’s nursing regularly, and adamantly refusing the bottle.

We keep an eye on her with a cheap outdoor X10 Airsight wireless IP webcam (see X10 homepage ).  I bought on sale for $69 (I also got one for the Hut).

Image of baby alpaca nursing

BarnCam snapshot of Stardust nursing, and Izzie.

The webcam works ok via a Linksys network extender, but either the extender or the camera occasionally needs to be manually reset.  The webcam does not have wide enough coverage, so sometimes the beasts are out of the shot.  The webcam has IR LED illumination for night.  It’s been in the 50’s in the evening so Stardust is wearing her jacket and hanging out under a heat lamp.

Day of Rest

I need to do some painting.  Not the creative kind, but the Hut is showing wear, and the Scope Shed is still wearing its original brown.   This occurred to me at maybe 4:30 am after getting up to pee, and before falling back to sleep.  So it made sense to get the painting stuff laid out this morning.  Thinking about painting reminded me I have a window to replace in the barn, which has been boarded up since winter, and I should really paint the window before replacing it.  It would be best to lay it out on the picnic table.  IMG_1056The picnic table is currently loaded up with a pretty cool, very heavy cast iron sink that until we re-did the kitchen last year was, in fact, our kitchen sink, since probably about 1924.  It’s something that is actually desirable for a person wanting a funky antique update to a modern kitchen, but whatever, it’s a cragslist thing as far as I’m concerned.  And it’s tying up the picnic table.  So I’m going to hook up the trailer to our Craftsman garden tractor and move the sink to the barn with other flea market stuff.  The trailer is pretty old, and the tires don’t hold air.  IMG_1057I have some Green Slime — you know Green Slime?   It’s an eponymous product that you pump into iffy tires and it generally plugs up slow leaks.IMG_1069 I pump slime into the trailer tires, and pump them up.  The tiller also has a leaker tire, so I slimed it as well. I get the sink loaded; it’s about 120 pounds of cast iron, but I can horse it around and get it loaded.  Ollie, the labrador interrupts, demanding a Frisbee  break.  IMG_1059 The sink accumulated a lot of debris sitting there for months, so I run it over to the hydrant, and see the tire looks low, but the sink cleans up okay, and I run it to the comoressor and put some more air in.  Meanwhile the male alpacas are mowing the back yard, and Express, who seems to have more testosterone than he strictly needs, is running down Ferb, biting and generally harassing him.  Ferb is making an alarming noise that is unequivocably a scream.  You can’t really separate them when they’re doing this; you just end up chasing them around uselessly.  But they react well to being hosed down.  It distracts them, cools them off, and they forget they’re mad.  In fact they love being hosed down. They’re like city kids on a hot day; cracking a hydrant does wonders for everybody’s attitude.  I got pretty hot too, and take a break for a dip. IMG_1064


This can’t be good.

It looks like the tires are holding air, and the sink is put away.  I’m ready to put the tractor away, but it doesn’t start, it makes an alarming grinding noise but doesn’t turn over.  The solenoid?  I am constantly struggling with the various  small motors that run things around here.  I get the cover off the engine; need to replace the air filter, how does this poor thing breathe?  And, um, it’s way overdue for an oil change….

Once I get it opened up, there’s an obviously broken bendix gear, at least I think it’s a bendix….  Bendix? Nope, I think it’s broke-ixs.  So now I’m inside surfing for parts.  PartsTree is my friend.  But I have to go back out to get the model number off the engine.  I get the number, but it doesn’t come up!

Part Number 501!

Part Number 501!

I dig thru the yellowed pages of the tractor manual, and get an entirely different model number, which does come up in PartsTree, and I will be trying to install this thing in 3 to 5 business days.

Meantime I need to put the dead tractor away. It’s 3:30 now.   I rig a tow strap to the zero turn mower, and drag its ass to the barn .  On the way, I see some mulberries coming on. IMG_1063They’re not quite there yet, but actually mulberries are best when they’re almost but not quite ripe.  In the barn, I lay out the covers and bolts so they’re ready to go when I get the parts.

It’s time to get a brief dip in before the afternoon thunder storm arrives.

I need to do some painting.

A nice triple conjunction

After the crazy weather we’ve been having , it was a treat to see Venus, Jupiter and Mercury crammed together into a neat triangle after sunset.   Mercury can be hard to find in the twilight, and it sure makes it easier to have Venus or Jupiter as a marker.  Tonight we have both!  Mercury is the faintest of the three, at the top of the triangle.

Venus, Jupiter and Mercury form a nice triangle May 26.  Canon 60Da 135mm lens, 1/60 at 5.6.

Venus, Jupiter and Mercury form a nice triangle May 26. Canon 60Da 135mm lens, 1/30 second  at f/5.6.  Click for larger.

Orion and New Moon

We’ve had a rainy week and 5 or 6 inches of rain, but it cleared up nicely.  I planned a run on M99, which I had botched a few weeks before.  i unparked the scope, fired up the camera & coolers, opened the roof and aimed at Denebola to check the aim.  That accomplished, I headed inside to do the rest from the living room.

I stepped out of the Hut into a lovely twilight and had to just stop to take in the Big Picture, which is so often lost when futzing with gear.

The Hut in a lovely twilight. Canon 60Da, 38mm; 4 seconds and 1/60 sec exposures combined in Photoshop.  Our local ugly green gradient was cheerfully removed with the Astronomy Tools Soft Gradient removal action.

The Hut in a lovely twilight with Orion and our moon. Canon 60Da, 38mm; 4 seconds and 1/60 sec exposures combined in Photoshop. Our local ugly green gradient was cheerfully removed with the Astronomy Tools Soft Gradient removal action. The red wash was added by my headlamp. Click image for full size.

I heard peepers chorusing across the field and the  redwings calling in the bamboo patch. Then coyotes had a brief earnest discussion.  I haven’t processed the M99 frames yet.  Will put them up soon.