Thursday, December 31, 2009

Garden Hopes

I've gotten in the habit of going to the same set of trails to go hiking lately. While I like variety in the places I visit, it's also interesting to watch a single place change as the seasons pass. One of the views from the trail is this large community garden where I'm hoping to score a plot this coming season.

Looking at it now it can be hard to believe in a few months it will be a hotbed of people doing what we've been doing for millenia--working with the soil to bring forth something to eat. I look forward to chronicling my gardening adventures here. The place is called Eagle Heights. Today it lived up to that name. A little farther east I was treated to the sight of a couple of immature Bald Eagles flying over and then this one as I was getting to the gardens themselves.

Unfortunately it was headed away from me at a good clip so the pictures aren't as nice as they could be, but it was an exciting encounter anyway. I also found this imprint in the snow at about the same time. Something happened here involving a bird but I can't tell what. Maybe it was just making a snow angel for fun.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Frosty Prairie Morning

Contrary as ever, I've refused to completely readjust to the most recent time change. Getting to bed "earlier" lead to my own pursuit of old Ben's prescribed health, wealth and wisdom when I woke up equally early and decided to rise. Even though I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast I got to the prairie just after sunrise. There was frost on the ground and the sky was completely clear. I had barely stepped out of the car when I started hearing Sandhill Cranes calling from the direction of the marshes. Multiple flocks passed over, all heading north. Maybe it's really spring after all.

A lone hawk glided over, possibly in pursuit of his own breakfast, though if I were a rodent on the prairie this morning I would have been tempted to stay in the nest until it warmed up a bit.

Since I had gotten such an early start, I decided to walk all the way to the top of the hill that dominates the prairie. On the way I passed the area where I most often hear Ring-necked Pheasants crowing. This morning one of them was announcing his presence in the vicinity of this great old Bur Oak, but I never saw him.

From the top of the hill the view is wonderful--provided you can block out the suburban sprawl that wraps two sides of this tract. Looking south I could see the marshes where some cranes were still circling and calling.

And here, to the northwest I found where the cranes were headed. It's not spring after all. They were just flying to their own breakfast in a field of corn stubble.

I'm managing to love autumn--for the moment--and yesterday I resolved to try to love winter as well. It's not like I have any choice in their coming and going. And, like what I think of as the more comfortable seasons, there's still something wonderful to see if I take the time to look.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Walk in the Neighborhood and Another Lifer

It's a bit of a stretch to say this morning's walk was actually in my neighborhood, but it's so close I like to think that it is. The weather wasn't the greatest at first, so the only halfway decent shots I got of some Common Loons (Gavia immer) are kind of on the dull side.

A half mile or so into the hike it actually got darker. Fortunately this White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albocollis) was cooperative for a minute or two. I really like this species even though I associate them with autumn which is not my favorite season. Be sure you notice the distinctive yellow spots by the eyes. Once you start really looking at sparrows you realize they aren't just boring brown birds.

By the time I was on my way back the sun was coming out, thanks to the chilly south breeze that was blowing. It cleared up enough that I had no trouble seeing this Swainson's Thrush (Catharus ustulatus) when it hopped up on a log looking very alert.

Fortunately it was completely sunny and bright when I happened upon this trio. They are Horned Grebes (Podiceps auritus), a species I've not seen before. Wow! With the Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata) I observed on the way to work one drizzly morning the other day that makes two "Lifers" in one week.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


Last year the first cake of suet I put out for bird feeding disappeared in a matter of days. I was so glad to see that they were eating it that I bought several more so I wouldn't run out. The next cake hung untouched for weeks. Eventually I took all the suet to my parents. They live in the country and go through all kinds of bird food faster than I do. I suspect that the first cake may have been eaten by squirrels but I never witnessed them in the act.

Consequently, it wasn't until recently that I decided to try offering suet again. I put it in a standard cage feeder that I'd modified by adding a board at the bottom for a tail prop. Woodpeckers like having something to brace their tails against when they perch. I'm happy to report that in only a few days I saw the occasional Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atrocapillus) feeding on the top of the cake. Then I started noticing woodpeckers stopping by for a snack. First, we have a Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens.) This one is a female. They lack the red spot on the back of the head that males of the species have.

Downy Woodpeckers are sometimes hard to distinguish from this species, the Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus) which is a bit larger and has a noticeably longer bill. This one is a male with the bright red spots on the back of his head.

Finally and much to my delight I've seen a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) visit as well. This is probably one of my favorite local bird species.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Grainy Craving

Lately I've had a craving for barley. I don't know why, but I think it has to do with its wholesome and filling qualities and the fact that the weather has been so dreary lately. So today I cooked up a batch of soup to get some barley on my menu. What follows is a summary of the project. The last time I posted a soup "someone" on facebook tried to cast doubt on whether it was home-made or canned ;)

Here it is! Three-quarters of a cup of organic barley. Yum!

And it's co-star in this dish is none other than a pound of awesome oyster mushrooms from the Westside Community Market. They will be sliced for their appearance in this dish.

I read about toasting barley before cooking with it to bring out its flavor so I gave it a try. The barley went on a sheet in a 350 degree F oven for five minutes. It made the kitchen smell great.

Next I lightly sauteed 1 1/2 cups of diced onion and 3/4 cup diced carrot in 1/8 cup of olive oil. Sorry if the day-glo carrots are burning your eyes. Ironic, isn't it?

Once the onions are translucent, throw in the sliced mushrooms and cook them for a few minutes. Stir frequently.

Next, add six cups of a low-fat chicken stock...

...and the toasted barley!

Bring the pot to a boil and then reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer gently for fifty minutes to an hour. When the barley is tender, taste the soup and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Then enjoy, preferably in the company of souper friends and family.

A couple concluding notes--The recipe called for celery but I didn't have any so I just left it out. The finished soup is almost a little "too umami" but it's good. I wonder if the celery would have brightened it some and taken the savoriness down a notch. I'm considering adding a little lemon juice to that end, but I'm hesitant to mess with what is a pretty good soup as it is.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Tomato Soup

I made a simple soup last month with tomatoes from the in-laws' garden. With today's dreary weather, it seemed like the perfect time to pull some from the freezer and serve it up. paired with a grilled cheese sandwich on grainy, nutty bread it was a delicious dinner.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A Fine Kettle

No, this isn't another cooking post. I'm embarrassed at how long it's taken me to post about what was the most spectacular North American bird phenomenon I observed this year. Every fall many hundreds of thousands of raptors--birds of prey--pack up and fly far south for the winter. Having such a long way to go, they conserve energy by soaring rather than flapping their wings. When they reach rising air currents either created by winds being deflected upward by land features or thermals generated by warm ground, they circle and circle upward and then break away again to glide southward until they reach another updraft. When a migrating hawk sees another riding the currents upward this way he thinks, "Hey! Looks like Harry got a good lift there. I'm going, too!" and joins in. Soon more birds are joining the party and it ends up looking like this:

This awesome formation is called a kettle. During an hour or so that there was the most action I conservatively estimate we saw between four and five hundred hawks. In this case they were Broad-winged Hawks (Buteo platypterus), distinguished by a wide white band on the underside of their tails, that were joined by a few Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura.)

The location of this particular show was at Nelson Dewey State Park in the southwest corner of Wisconsin. Located on the bluffs above the Mississippi River the park provides some amazing views of the river valley and is something of a lesser known destination compared to Wyalusing State Park a little farther north. Either location is a great spot to stand around doing this (and having a sore neck for a few days after.)

Much farther north, at Duluth, Minnesota the fall hawk migration is even more spectacular. Raptors don't like crossing large bodies of water. So when the ones flying down from Canada encounter Lake Superior they turn and follow the shoreline west. The birds are concentrated in numbers as they pass by aptly named Hawk Ridge where it's common to see thousands of birds pass by in a single day. I've never witnessed it myself, but I hope to some day.

Not all the action was in the sky that weekend, either. Asters were in bloom everywhere signalling that autumn is truly upon us.

And this furry little caterpillar was seen several times.

And, finally, on one of the trails at Wyalusing we encountered this sad reminder. Even in the face of so many birds in one spot we know that if we're not careful, they really can all just go away for good.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Tongues of Fire!

There was excitement at the Westside Community Market this morning. One of the vendors had dried beans! OK, maybe it was just exciting to me, but the big shiny tubs of pinto, black and Horto or Tongues of Fire beans (pictured below) were a new addition to the fare normally available. I recalled once growing shell beans for myself and the fun I had threshing them in a big paper bag. These had been machine picked and I spent some time cleaning out soft ones, bits of dirt and stick and so on before jarring them up. They get their names from their red-streaked pods, which of course I did not get to see. This winter they're going to be wonderful in soups, salads and baked.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Morning Walk

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Red Tomatoes!!

In the past my attempts to grow tomatoes on my mostly shady deck haven't been very successful. The best I've gotten is either a small handful of cherry tomatoes or a couple of big, hard green ones around the end of August. This year I planted a "Bush Champion" that is supposed to mature at 65 days, the shortest time I could find. And now that the weather has turned hot again....they're ripening!!! I can't wait to pick the first one.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Neighborhood Crows

I've been noticing a small flock of half a dozen or so crows roosting in the trees around my garden since we got back from vacation. They've been so quiet you wouldn't know they were there unless you noticed them flying in or specifically looked for them. The one on the right here must be a juvenile because it looked like the other one was feeding it something just before I took this image.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

What Big Eyes You Have!

We had a little visitor at one of our campsites last week. To mimic some semblance of civilization through running water we hang a Camelback water pouch on a tree. When the Co-conspirator was going for an evening toothbrushing we discovered this nocturnal forest dweller clinging to the strap.

It's a Northern Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus.) It's a completely nocturnal rodent that few people see. I believe I've seen the southern species in our neighborhood briefly silhouetted against the light as it leapt from one branch to another. It's shape is distinctive looking sort of like a square kite with squirrel limbs, tail and head. Flying squirrels don't actually fly, but rather glide on the folds of skin that run between their front and hind limbs.

This one was so intent on licking the strap it didn't seem to mind us standing right near it and talking about it. We think it was drawn to the salt on the fabric. It didn't leave until I tripped on a root and made a sudden move.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

It's Boreal, not Boring!

Last week's camping trip took me to a really special biome, the boreal forest. It's a band of temperate forest just a few hours north of here and you can tell you're getting there when you start seeing fewer deciduous trees and more conifers. What's fun about entering a completely different biome is that you start to see different wildlife, too. For example, one encounters more species of warblers, only a few of which nest around my home. The Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotita varia), however, moves farther north in the summer and I normally only see them when they migrate through in spring and fall.

Around where I live we have mostly White-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis) but in the boreal forest one sees more Red-breasted Nuthatches (S. canadensis) as well.

More boreal beauty to come!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Now that I'm back home from a week camping in the northwoods I really miss being outside all the time. Maybe some pics will come later, but for now here is a list of the cool mammals and birds I encountered:

Red Squirrel
River Otter
Flying Squirrel
White-tailed Deer
Black Bear
Black Squirrel

Olive-sided Flycatcher
Black-capped Chickadee
Cedar Waxwing
American Robin
White-throated Sparrow
Bald Eagle
Common Tern
Common Loon
Ring-billed Gull
Red-breasted Merganser
Gray Catbird
American Goldfinch
American Crow
Blue Jay
American Redstart
Downy Woodpecker
American Kestrel
Northern Flicker
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Canada Warbler
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Norther Harrier
Mourning Dove
Red-winged Blackbird
Indigo Bunting
Least Sandpiper
American Woodcock
Red-eyed Vireo
Barred Owl (Heard)
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Pine Warbler
Wild Turkey
Hermit Thrush
Eastern Wood Peewee
Barn Swallow
Eastern Kingbird
Canada Goose
Connecticut Warbler
Great Blue Heron
Marsh Wren
Black-and-white Warbler
Brown Thrasher
Double-crested Cormorant
Song Sparrow
Hairy Woodpecker
Common Raven
White-winged Crossbill (Unsure)
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Golden-winged Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Common Yellowthroat

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Farmers' Market + Vom Fass