February 25, 2014: If you are a regular reader of this newsletter, you probably recognized when you landed here that things look a bit different. For the first time in nearly 13 years, we've given our website a serious overhaul, acknowledging the relentless advance of technology that frees web designers from sites that look and feel as though they were crafted in 1996.
To see any of these photos larger, or as a slideshow, view our Flickr gallery.
Okay, our site's born-on date was a couple of years younger than that, but it still joined the Internet before Google, Facebook or the social media frenzy that has grown with the evolution of cellphones. It predated blogs or Twitter or photo sharing sites that we all take for granted now. It came online as we were cutting the cord with America Online and getting our first taste of the wild wild west that the unfiltered Internet was in the days before the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and huge corporations squashed the fun out of it. The problem was, our site's old design was horribly out of date and not very much fun to use — even for those of us updating it.
It wasn't that we hadn't thought about doing a digital facelift in all those years. The problem was that the Internet's evolution from text-based bulletin boards to e-commerce multimedia juggernaut left a lot of people who aren't full-time computer scientists in the dust. We had a lot of hours and megabytes invested in our existing site and didn't want to just scrap it all in favor of moving to one of the many prefabbed blog sites like Blogger or Tumblr where we could update our look but lose the freedom of having our own web hosting service. So we stuck with the status quo, deciding that comfort with the old and familiar was more important than modernizing.
But our hand was forced last year when a computer system upgrade made obsolete the software we had been using to update our web pages and we had to move everything over to Adobe Dreamweaver. No longer was it a simple matter to paste in some new text or change a little HTML. Now we found ourselves having to learn CSS, or cascading style sheets. It was a lot like suddenly being thrust into a foreign country and having to converse in the native tongue, and try as we might through studying books and videos on the subject, mastery of CSS seemed unlikely any time soon.
Enter Foundation, a grid-based website development template we stumbled across very much by accident while searching for a new look for this site. The free template we finally chose — the one you are looking at now — just happened to use Foundation as its... um, foundation. By simply tweaking a few of the template's CSS commands we could adapt it to do what we wanted, and one of those things was to have a slider program on the homepage that would offer up new photos for the viewer every few seconds. Cool, or so we thought.
In a burst of renewed creative spirit, Glenn spent part of a weekend moving around code and linking pages and photos to the new, prettier template. When he was done, he unveiled the new "Gehlke Gazette" to the rest of the family, especially proud of the new homepage slider that featured three large rotating images — our photo of the month, a favorite portrait shot of the two of us at the Martinez Regional Shoreline last spring, and the latest image taken by our backyard bird webcam. But when Roni got her first look at it, on her MacBook Pro, she said, "What slider?"
"Why, the big slider at the top of the page. Don't you see it?" Glenn said.
Sure enough, where there should have been rotating pictures, Roni had nothing. We had her try the site in a different web browser, thinking that maybe her Safari program was the source of the problem, with no different results. Curious. We asked Ben if he could see it on his HP Pavilion with its big desktop screen, and he could. Glenn was also able to see the slider on an old iMac he uses as a writing computer. Surely the problem was Roni's laptop computer. We ran some tests and changed some software settings, but nothing would make the missing images appear. We were thinking the problem was isolated to Roni's machine until Glenn tried to pull up the redesigned website at his office and got the same thing — no pictures. Well this was no good. Three out of five computers showed the slides and two failed. Clearly it was time for some troubleshooting.
The troubleshooting took nearly a week, as Glenn tried everything he could think of to "repair" the broken slide show, going so far as to rebuild the home page several times, trying different photos, upgrading software and losing sleep. But sometimes the simple answers to complex problems come in the wee hours of the night, which is what happened in this case. Thinking back to something he had read in the Foundation instruction manual, he realized that the slideshow had been programmed by the original template designer to show up only on computer screens over a minimum size! Roni's laptop and Glenn's work computer both had screens that were too small for the slideshow to display. Simply adjusting a line of code in the template did the trick, and FINALLY the site was ready for prime time.
Gone is the old cluttered home page, along with links to some sites we haven't maintained in years. (If you really want to see them, they're still online if you know how to search for them.) Our new home page offers a springboard to the monthly newsletter (this thing), the archives of all our newsletters back to the first one in October 1998, and the latest 50 images from our Wandering Webcam. We'll probably add some other links in time, but those are the main ones. It feels great to at last have a website that looks like it belongs in the 21st century.
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SPEAKING OF THE WEBSITE, last month we introduced our "Wandering Webcam" and shared the details of how we set it up in the backyard to monitor the comings and goings at our bird feeders. We've been quite busy with the camera since then, as well as the bird feeding area.
Our early effort to set up the camera was somewhat haphazard. We simply laid the 50-foot USB cable above ground across our backyard, stretching it as far as it would go to reach the feeders. But we never intended to leave the cable exposed to the environment, especially when we saw it getting buried by gopher mounds. A more permanent solution was necessary to protect it, so we made a run to Home Depot and picked up some PVC electrical conduit. The 1-inch gray tubing did the job nicely, although we really had to stretch the cable to get its connection to the cam made in a spot where it would be easily accessible should something go wrong. Unfortunately the junction box where the cable ends met had to be located under our flagstone garden path, which means one of the stones has to be removed before we can get into the box.
The first test of our new conduit came a couple of days later, following our first real rain storm in several months. We woke up the morning of Feb. 1 and eagerly went to the computer to check on the early bird activity and found that the computer had shut itself off overnight. We rebooted it and got only a blank signal from the camera. Uh-oh. Our first fear was that rain had gotten inside the camera housing and shorted out the camera. We tried unplugging it and then replugging it into the computer, but no change. So it was outside to dig up the junction box under the garden path. Everything looked dry inside the box and the camera enclosure, so Glenn gave it another try by plugging it into Roni's laptop computer — and this time it worked. So what was wrong with the big iMac in the living room?
After playing with the connection and the software on the iMac, Glenn finally determined it was a software glitch. He reset everything and the camera worked fine. We haven't had any problems with it since, except for dirt and rain water building up on the glass window in the camera housing. We just have to go out after a heavy rain with a little Windex and clean off the glass. It would be easier if the glass didn't get splashed to begin with, so we found some clear plastic and made a makeshift awning that we attached to the enclosure's roof to reduce the splash back from the feeder board. It doesn't seem to bother the birds, who still come right up to the cam window in search of wayward seeds. The photos we get of them doing this make them appear like giants.
We liked the feeder board as a way to bring the birds closer to the camera, but we quickly discovered that the board, at just under 6 inches wide, was too narrow to do the job well. Most of the bird seed went rolling off the sides as the birds pecked at it or blew it away with their wings during landings and take-offs. So we bought a 10-inch-wide pine plank and some plastic lattice strips that we glued to the edges to form a low railing. The idea was to keep the edges high enough that the seed would remain on the board, but low enough that the birds could perch on it comfortably to peck at the food. We spray painted the whole assembly antique white and then swapped it in place of the old board.
The result has been more room for the birds to congregate on the feeder board, so now we are getting five or six at a time. We also decided to upgrade the old metal birdhouse platform that is visible in the cam behind and to the left of the feeder board. The old platform was a 10"x11" piece of plywood that was beginning to rot. We bought a 2x2-foot plywood square to replace it, put the lattice railings on it and painted it up just like the feeder board. As a twist, we rounded off the plywood square's front corner so that the board sort of resembles a baseball diamond and outfield. We screwed it on to the existing green 4x4 post and then decorated it by replacing the metal birdhouse with a couple of inexpensive resin birdhouses we picked up at RiteAid. They resemble a 1931 Ford pickup and an Airstream trailer. Roni has plans to add another wood birdhouse behind them, once she figures out what style she likes.
Meanwhile, the birds and other critters have been scarfing down the food so fast that we are thinking about investing in bird seed stocks. We've discovered a couple of brands they readily prefer, as well as a couple they mostly waste. Roni has to put feed out at least two and usually three times a day, and it is usually gone within a couple of hours. The finches and doves love the small round seeds, while the sparrows crave the dried meal worms we put out. Put down a few peanuts in the shell and the jays go nuts. Anything they leave overnight falls prey to opossoms or, lately, a wandering raccoon. The blackbirds are very aggressive and swoop in from the nearby vineyard in large flocks to take part in the daily feast. As we get closer to nesting season, the male red wing blackbirds are showing their bright colors whenever they land on the feeder board. And if you think you get to see a lot of birds on the cam — it takes anywhere from 700 to 1,000 still images every day — keep in mind that there are many more you don't get to see because they are milling around on the ground looking for the food that was dropped from above. We've got a regular aviary going in our backyard, and we're having a blast!
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FEBRUARY ALWAYS MARKS the start of spring along the Delta, calendar be damned. Once the first trees begin to blossom it's just a matter of a couple of weeks before everything is blanketed in brilliant white and pastel shades of pink, from the dogwood trees on meadowed hillsides to the almonds and walnuts that have survived decades of disease and development on forgotten plots of land. Our own ornamental plum tree hasn't fared as well this year, thanks largely to a lack of rain during fall and January, but it too has tried its best to bloom on the front lawn. Mostly it seems to want to skip the blossoms and go straight to the leaves, which is too bad.
February also is the time when Glenn hits the unofficial trails around town for his annual blossom walk. The confused trees got an earlier than normal start this year, thinking that January's warm conditions meant spring had already arrived, so some of the blossoms were already at their peak at the start of February — right as the rains moved in. It rained the first and second weekends of the month, so by the time Feb. 15 came along Glenn was fretting that he might not get a change to take his walk while the trees were still in bloom. He vowed to do so that Saturday morning, rain or shine.
As fate would have it, there was no rain — he got gloom instead. The muddy gray skies made for horrible light for picture taking, but he didn't let it deter him as he fired away with his Canon at the trees bordering the former DuPont property. The half dozen or so trees he always looks forward to seeing were still there, some more in bloom than others.
The blossom walk turned into more of a railroad reconnaissance mission, as Glenn's route took him along the BNSF mainline where work is presently under way to add a second set of tracks through town. The railroad company brought in thousands of feet of ribbon rail a little more than a year ago, and only recently has been at work building a new bridge near the Highway 160 overpass and bringing in concrete ties for the second line. Workers have been coming and going on the right of way behind our house as they install new switches and marshal wood ties into place. We aren't looking forward to the added rail traffic these activities will bring, but we are anxious for them to be finished with their work.
Glenn walked west through the DuPont yard and took a leisurely stroll over the newly built rail bridge — something that was only possible because the tracks have yet to be laid there. On the other side he turned north and followed the western embankment of the Highway 160 freeway as far as he could go until a padlocked fence blocked his way. Along the way he passed lots more blooming trees, eucalyptus teeming with birds, and more than a couple abandoned homeless campsites. The skies threatened rain that never arrived, and after five hours of exploring Glenn was back home, safe and dry, with hundreds of photos to add to a decade's collection of such walks.
It was a relief to get the walk in, especially because rain had been in the forecast for the rest of Presidents Day weekend. But Glenn was disappointed when the promised rains never materialized, and instead there was plenty of sunshine that would have afforded better photos. Ah well, sometimes it just is what it is.