Sunday, August 31, 2008

A Grand Day Out

Holiday weekends are a time to relax, unwind and enjoy. I did that yesterday. I got a little stir-crazy. Today the co-conspirator and I hit the road for a grand day of hiking, birding and geocaching and now I'm pooped.

Our trip began at Governor Dodge State Park where no sooner than we had parked to discuss our first hike than the trees adjacent to the parking lot were alive with migrating warblers. It being the case that I suck at identifying any but the easy ones I'll just say they were the yellow and white ones. That should cover it.

Eventually we hiked a multi-mile trail to reach a cache high atop one of the rock formations in the park. It didn't look that high or that far from the distance, but apparently I'm not accustomed to either the heat or inadequate breakfasts or both. On the way we did see a Black-and-White Warbler--one I can actually identify.

A couple of cool but macabre sights were encountered on our hikes as well. Here is some sort of bug preying on a monarch butterfly caterpillar. I always check out milkweed plants for monarchs when I find them. I loved finding chrysalids and caterpillars when I was a kid and every time we'd pick the pods and release the seeds my mom would tell me how she collected them for stuffing in life jackets or some such thing during World War II. The other sad sight was a dead bird. In the middle of a trail we found some kind of flycatcher. It was incredible how tiny it was. Living and sitting on a branch they don't look nearly as small; the body was maybe only three inches long and it weighed next to nothing. It was a horse trail so I moved it into the weeds off the trail where it wouldn't be trampled. Poor little thing.

At one point the trail came right next to Twin Valley Lake and there was a Double-Crested Cormorant perching on a dead tree hanging over the water. It's not a spectacular or rare bird, but we spent some time looking at it and taking a few photos. I'm really thinking about getting some kind of digital camera/spotting scope combo or something easily portable. The problem, I suppose, with any hand-held solution would be holding it steady. There's not always a handy tree to brace against.

On the way home we swung by Spring Green for a late lunch at Culver's and to check out the wader/shorebird situation there. Why has Spring Green become a birdwatcher's destination? Because since the flooding way back in June way too many fields and front yards are still under water. I don't understand why; I thought the whole area was essentially sand. It's un-fricking-believeable. At one moment we're looking at a shallow lake bordered by stunted, ruined corn and a short drive down the road there's one of the healthiest looking crops of corn I've seen.

Tomato's Tough Brother

Like the tomato it's growing next to, my Solanum atropurpureum has started forming fruits. The family resemblance is undeniable between the flowers and fruits. But the resemblance ends at the leaves and stem. Unlike the tomato, S. atropurpureum is covered with thorns. Even the leaves have sharp, purple needles protruding stiffly from their upper and lower surfaces. I'm guessing that in the wild this plant isn't grazed much.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Sign of Summer's End

It's been no mystery to me that summer is winding to a close. Still, I was surprised to notice this little sign of the season's demise. What you're seeing here is the beginning of the formation of a bulbil on the leaf of the largest of my Amorphophallus bulbifer plants. A. bulbifer is a relative of the Titan Arum, Amorphophallus titanum that causes a stir among the botanically geeky any time one of them blooms somewhere.

Of the several species of Amorphophallus I have, I think it has the prettiest leaves. They're large, deeply-lobed and have a wavy pink edge. A. bulbifer gets its name from what I believe is a unique mode of reproduction within the genus. At the end of its growing season it forms a large bulbil on top of the point where its petiole joins the leaf blades. Smaller bulbils form at points along the upper side of the main veins of the leaf. A few that are just starting to form are visible here as the little green teardrop shapes. Once the leaf senesces the largest of the bulbils, which now look like rough little potatoes, can be stored and later planted to create new plants.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Guy Night!

And so it happens that a pretty good day ends with "Guy Night!"

The pretty good day consisted of spontaneously joining a Wisconsin Society for Ornithology field trip to Horicon Marsh and adding four five species to my Life List. (Yay!)

That was followed with work. You, know, "work" as in doing my job, just like I did yesterday afternoon. Never mind that it's the weekend. There are crises to avert! At least today I worked at home.

Having accomplished two missions and with a special dinner in mind, when Happy Hour arrived I shook up my own Vesper Martini with slight modifications for what I had on hand. Then I made dinner. The main course was something I'd been looking forward to all weekend--corn dogs from the "The Man Food Show" Episode of Good Eats with Alton Brown.

Man, they were good!! I had to add more flour than the recipe calls for to get a good coating of batter on the smoky all-beef franks. I also skipped the canned creamed corn and used the fresh, locally-grown sweet corn I purchased yesterday at the West Side Community Market. On the side? Baked beans, naturally. The dogs aren't pretty as is obvious here, but the taste more than makes up for it. The breading puffs up light and airy with a crispy crust. Even with a healthy coating on each weenie there was a lot of batter left over. I dropped some spoonfuls into the fryer and discovered it makes a danged tasty jalapeño corn fritter.

Could things be any better? Yes, of course. When I flipped around the channels to see what was on TV to watch while I enjoyed my guy food I came across a James Bond movie. Yeah, life is good.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Kitchen Away From Home

I don't know if this is normal, but when I travel I almost look forward to cooking in a new place as much as I do seeing the sights. As far back as 1996--sadly the last time I've traveled internationally; Toronto hardly counts--I was excited that one of the places we stayed in Provence had a rudimentary kitchen. We didn't delve to deeply into cuisine on that particular trip, but I do remember a farmer's market that I would love to return to.

On one camping trip two years ago the highlight was making a lovely burgundy beef in the dutch oven. It took hours, but what a wonderful, relaxing time sitting under the trees listening to the birds, reading a good book and watching a placid lake while I tended the coals and rotated the pot and cover. Only a couple weeks after that my co-conspirator and I were at a cooking class with Marcel Biró learning a bit of rustic Italian cookery.

And then there were a couple of memorable trips to New York where I had as much fun cooking for the parties our hosts threw as I did touring the museums. I love grocery shopping in The Village.

Now when we've visited coastal Oregon several times I've been grateful to have accommodations that feature a full kitchen. It's an added bonus that it overlooks the Pacific Ocean and some scenic offshore rocks. Each time we go we count the days we'll be there, list the various local seafoods we want to taste, and plan our shopping and cooking accordingly.

What would be my dream vacation? I have enough interests that I could stay entertained by a variety of things pretty much anywhere but Kansas. But if it came down to it that the only choice was to spend a week holed up in cozy accommodations with a well stocked pantry and some interesting recipes, I could have a pretty good time.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Big Two-Oh-Oh!

I did it. I got my 200th bird.

The sighting was sudden and unexpected, as I should have expected it to be. There we were last week on vacation in Oregon. I had rung up birds 195 through 199 pretty handily during the earlier part of the week. We were in what looked like a lovely meadow but which turned out to be a deeply fissured field of clay where walking was treacherous. Suddenly I caught a flash of red feathers in the dead trees at the edge of the meadow. (Pictured here sans bird) At first glance I thought it was a Purple Finch but as soon as I got my binoculars on it I could see it was too big and had a distinctive beak. It was a Red Crossbill. There were at least two at first but only one hung around long enough for my co-conspirator to confirm my identification.

Among the new Life List birds I added in Oregon were two especially cool species. One was found and identified when we crawled into a thicket to try to retrieve a cache that was blocked on the better side by the presence of other humans. Standing up in the thicket I was literally face to beak with a pair of very vocal and aggitated Wrentits! I took a quick look and got out of there quickly. The other especially interesting sighting was an American Dipper. It was bobbing around on the rocks in the Wilson River just upstream from the Tillamook Forest Center. We were able to watch it for a while as it moved from rock to rock and eventually into the stream where it caught something large and wriggling.

So, now what? I suppose I could set a new goal of 300. Doubtless if I keep up with the birding I'll reach that eventually. Maybe I'll make that the secondary goal as the 200 was, in all honestly, all along. For now the main goal will be just to get out and see as much of everything as I can.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Summer + Berries = Pie!

One of the million things I love about summer is the availability of fresh berries. This morning I ate half a pint of raspberries straight for breakfast. This afternoon I got ambitious and whipped up a blueberry pie. Only recently have I overcome the pie crust difficulties that suddenly arose over a year ago. A good friend--initials B.W., you know who you are!--has proven to be a true Prince of Pies. His advice has been most helpful. Buoyed by my return to competent pie crust production I attempted to make a lattice crust for the first time ever. It's a little crude, but I'm happy with the results.