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.