Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Week Day Reading-Birds, Blooms & More

Every winter I set little goals for myself that never seem to happen due to my short attention span and taking on too many things at once, including setting aside some time to veg curled up under comfy blankets and do some reading.  So far that hasn't happened this year until I got a review copy of the Unfeathered Bird-by Katrina van Grouw.  I was thrilled to accept the offer considering I'm pretty picky on what I review due to time constraints but this one intrigued me as it would offer me a glimpse of birds one seldom sees unless your'e into ornithology and I think the statement below sums it best.

"The Unfeathered Bird represents the culmination of a lifetime of work by Katrina van Grouw and draws heavily on her background as a former curator of the ornithological collections at London's Natural History Museum, a successful fine artist, and a taxidermist specialist.  For years, Katrina and her husband expertly prepared specimens of birds in natural poses from which she sketched and painted her art at true-to-life size."

 As you will see in the picture above.  Anyone want to guess what kind of bird belongs to that leg??  Give up??  That my friend is a Mallard!  Pretty nifty I do say so myself!

And my nemesis bird of 2012, the Black Vulture (pardon some of the photos as I was taking them under unnatural night time light and can't do this beautiful book justice).  Despite the photo, it is still fascinating to see this bird presented as it is above.  Check out the eye sockets!!  Amazing.

But my favorite photo of all is of the White-throated Hummingbird.  I can't help but to marvel at the delicate bone structure and the overall size of the bill in comparison.  Makes me respect hummingbirds even more and their natural spunk!

And the last photo is that of a Common Eider whose skull reminds me of an expensive running shoe!  ;-).  Also note the Red-breasted Merganser above.  But the sketches don't stop there as Katrina has every taxonomic family of birds in this book and all beautifully sketched.  Thinking this is going to make for some  more in depth holistic birding I'm so fond of, when I get a First of the Year bird and then go through all my guides and written content on the particular bird species and now have this to explore even further.

And now onto something a little more local which is a local Worcester blog called Growing with Plants by Matt.  Be sure to click on that link as it's going to bring you directly to a post I'm sure all of the Worcester County locals will appreciate as it's old pictures from when his father was active in the Forbush Bird Club which was a highlight of my day yesterday.  Be fore warned, it's the type of blog you can spend a lot of time at which I have as Matt is not only an incredible gardener with an impressive knowledge of every plant imaginable, but photographer and writer as well- but I'll let you see that for yourself.

  And here I was all proud of myself that I've kept my rosemary alive for the past two years without killing it which is what I usually do.  It was left out this past mild winter we had which made me grow very attached to it so brought it into the office to over winter there thinking it would be a better place for it to go dormant with no danger of a hard frost.  After about 2 weeks of artificial light the rosemary behaved as if it were on steroids but growing very leggy due to lack of natural sunlight.  The heat is drying it out as well so have to give it a hearty watering once a week but still at a loss on what I should do as I'm not sure if I should prune the leggy growth or not but right now I'm just glad it's still alive!  ;-)

Take care all.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Winter Doldrums

In my vow to keep my blog somewhat updated I decided to check in again despite not much happening on the birding front.  In fact, it's been pretty much non existent except for the yard considering I'm not fond of frigid temps and unforgiving winds which is a common theme when one's brave enough to venture outside for FOY birds.  In the past, I wouldn't let this bother me, but now realize the birds will still be around come March and April when signs of spring awaken as well as many of my feathered friends I already miss as they winter down South.  That's not to say I'm done birding by any means, it just means this type of weather makes me more of a home body where I putter around the house thinking of things to do like my jar of home made hot chocolate with another nifty French label!    So good with no trans fats which is win/win as far as I'm concerned.  Also notice the pretty little ribbon tied as best I could on top of the jar.  As you can see the estrogen continues to flow freely in the Allen household.  My son was impressed I could accomplish such a task considering he's never seen me do it in his 20 years of life.

The birds in my yard are as sick of the winter as I am and doing a good job emptying the feeders including quite a few American Tree Sparrows who are now regulars in my yard as they love the cheap wild bird seed I put out for them.  I had to go out and spend another $6.00 on those freeze dried mealworms I blogged about this past November when I thought I'd have no takers, but it's just the opposite as the Chickadees and  Titmice seem to prefer that over the sunflower seed.  Two new birds who developed a fondness for these worms are the White-breasted Nuthatch and Carolina Wren.

The American Crows are also a daily regular but not brave enough to cross the fence to get to my feeders for some reason.  At one point I had them taking whole chunks of real suet from my feeder and they were doing it so much I had to put it into something they couldn't do that with so I guess I took all the fun and ease out of it for them.  The picture above is of one such crow in my neighbors yard with a squirrel headed my way for a little late breakfast!

And since I've gotten so much better at my bread baking, we've been inhaling it here so no crumbs to throw out to speak of  for the crows so it's either climb the fence or get nothing!

And I'm really hoping the crows do cross the fence as I've put out a special something just for the corvids!  I buy all my eggs either from a local source or certified organic at the grocery store as it's still a very cheap source of protein and can't stand the way factory farmed egg chickens are treated so have my voice heard every time I buy a dozen.  I consider every part of the egg precious so decided to grind some up for the Blue Jays and crows so they can get some of the calcium they need in my naive hopes that if they get enough they won't rob nests of my beloved local passerines.  Plus it would also give me a chance to try out my new French vintage potato masher I got from eBay as part of a French kitchen utensil lot for a steal of a price if I do say so myself!!

The finished product that I just throw on the ground once a week in hopes for takers and if there are no takers than it will be good for the soil even though I grow nothing here as the leftover sunflower shells makes for unhappy plants and flowers so keep my feeding area bare of anything all times of the  year.

And since we're on the subject of birds check out this beauty made with my Aigre Doux and garnished with some of my dehydrated meyer lemons which are out of this world in tea and ice water.  While I really enjoyed the Aigre Doux, a little goes a long way and need to think of other ways to use it including beet salad and maybe a vinaigrette when I get the motivation.

The finished product with some organic carrots, potatoes and snow peas.

And I know you are all eagerly awaiting an update on the grapefruit pine marmalade I made which came out better than my last batch of marmalade from a consistency standpoint, but don't think I used enough pine tea as the flavor was lost in the grapefruit.  Still tasty though on top of a water cracker with some soft cheese and a glass of Pino Noir, hiccup.

And lastly an update on my vow to quit eBay with the last thing ordered (this one on Etsy) approx 12 days ago, was this adorable French towel holder shipped straight to me from France.  These towel holders were popular in the 20's and 30's where the French would have a towel used only for the specific item.  Verres were for glasses, Assiettes are plates, Couteaux are knives and Essuie Mans are for hand towels.  I'd get it dirt cheap and while it wasn't an enamelware towel holder I was still pleased with my purchase considering I've wanted one of these for ages now but never found one for a price I was willing to pay.

Well imagine my surprise when I go onto eBay Saturday morning and somehow find myself in the antique ceramic arts section of eBay where I'd see a honkin rooster staring at me.  Hmmmmm...I'd think.....There's o way that's antique I'd think and then my eye would be drawn to something else which would make me catch my breath as I registered what it was...

The sky would open and the angels would sing when there before my eyes was a red and cream vintage enamalware towel holder in the most cherished and sought after pattern, the rare lustucru !!  Lustrucru was a maker of pasta in France back in the 20's and 30's with one of their trademarks being their checkered boxes.  Some marketing genius came up with the idea of having the housewives collect and mail in the bottom of their used pasta boxes as part of a point system where prizes were canisters, pitchers, towel rack, etc in the very fashionable lustucru pattern!  In summary, the more pasta you bought the more kitchen items you'd get as you'd rack up the points!  Since it was only made by one company it's a little more rare than other forms of French enamelware which makes it very pricey so imagine my surprise when I see the starting bid of $9.99!!  I force myself away from my computer to go tend to my bread in the oven but it's no use.....I'm already picturing where in the kitchen the towel rack would go if I were lucky enough to win the item.  I go back to eBay to check out the bidders to see if any of them are my usual competitors and none look familiar.  HA I think to myself...These must be rooster collectors and not enamelware collectors which means it would be criminal for me not to bid as they wouldn't even appreciate the towel rack.  Out comes my calculator to factor in how much I'm willing to spend and I don't bid until the last minute as to not give the highest bidder the chance to outbid me.  The clock ticks as my heart is beating so fast I can hear it and I'm feeling dizzy as I'm no longer breathing just watching the countdown.  10...9.....8...7.....  Finally the clock spares me the agony and I realize I won the towel rack!  I'd jump up and down still in my pajamas with the same adrenalin rush I used to get during my gnarly trail runs as euphoria took over and I celebrated my victory.   It would be then I'd also feel a tinge of failure as my eBay quit vow only lasted 10 days, but Hell, how could I pass on such a deal!  Don't know what I'm going to do with the honkin rooster but I'll figure it out as he's actually starting to grow on me some!!  Yes, the weather better start improving soon as I'm a lot healthier when I'm outdoors.

Take care all.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Catching Up

I did some birding with Alan this morning and got some alright photos and great birds so figured I'd do a blog post considering it's been almost two weeks!  Our first stop would be the Fair Plaza and Price Chopper for the Black-headed Gull reported there over a week ago.  We didn't hold out much hope until we got a missed call from Sheila and we figured she and Mark were on the bird!

We'd arrive with a touch of optimism until we saw the usual Ring-billed Gulls including the one above with banding on its legs.  There would also be a handful of other tagged gulls thrown in for good measure but no Black-headed.  Mark and Sheila would arrive at the parking lot beaming over the fact that not only did they get the gull right at the parking lot, but great photos no less but it took off toward the sewage treatment plant.  Doh!  We'd stick around for a bit hoping it would come back but after almost a half an hour we decided to head toward the treatment facility in hopes of getting it there.

We'd pull off on Route 20 to get a look at the structure above and it wouldn't take us long to see a gull smaller than the others.  Photo is awful as you can attest to, but if you blow up the picture you will see a gray shaped gull to the left of the photo and right behind that to the right is the Black-headed Gull. :-p.  Alan would get out of the car to get the scope on the bird and we'd see it to confirm it but not a solid confirmation and then the little bugger would either fly off or go deeper into the gull circle making it hard to see.  We'd both be cold at this point and get back into the car to leave but then my eyes would go back to the spot where I'd see the cute little gull land back on the structure so we had to repeat the scope process with numb hands as the wind there was pretty brutal!  I'd get not only good looks at it perched but in the air as well where I could really see the dark under primary wings (different than the Ring-billed), which was a treat.  We'd get back in the car and Alan would tell me not to look again in fear I'd refind it to repeat the process yet again, but sure enough it was clear to go (although I do admit I snuck another look).

And we'd arrive at our next stop which was Big Chauncey in Westborough for the reported Snow Goose (probably the same one Dawn had in Southborough).   We'd run into Mark and Sheila again who would not only be on the Snow Goose but an Iceland Gull as well.  See the gull in the dead center of the photo behind the Canada Geese.  This would be a sweet stop as I'd get 2 FOY's!

Lousy shot of the goofy Snow Goose on the ice with the Canada Geese.

The next stop would be Wachusett Reservoir in hopes for the Canvasback where I didn't hold out much hope considering I struck out on the Great Cormorant last week (working full time sucks sometimes) but I still held out a glimmer of hope.  Nick and Justin would arrive so we'd all join forces in hopes for a glimpse.  Of course I'd strike out on it but did get some FOY Ring-necked Ducks as well as the best looks I've ever gotten of the female Barrow's Goldeneye!  The last stop would be Gate 25 (above) for the reported Red-breasted Merganser and we'd strike out on that too but did see one lone Common Loon to make for another FOY so all in all, not too shabby at the end of the day!

And besides that, things have been rather quiet for me birding wise as I continue in my quest for domestic perfection in all of my winter hobbies including bread making as I thought it would be the perfect skill to master as it would go perfect with my jam obsession!

Did someone say bread!!  Sigh, I still haven't gotten to the point where I can move onto a more challenging recipe so continue to bake lots of French Bread that I admit I'm getting a little sick of at this point.  Since my last post I've also acquired a couple of new hobbies all centered around the homestead that frankly has me a little mystified considering they're all very female in nature and a total contradiction to where I was this time last year when I was eating steak for breakfast and flipping tires of 18 wheeler's all in my goal of being a female viking warrior.  My eBay and Etsy hobby had to go on the back burner as I was spending more money than I should have and the postman at my office started hating me so decided I could still adorn my house with nice things but with little cost as there's this whole new network of women out there that do nothing but DIY projects.  Now I'm not talking small stuff here but rather grand craftmanship where they upcycle all kinds of things with nothing more than labels and paper.  Get the right paper and get some labels and voila, your'e transported to France (which is my soft spot when it comes to anything antique or vintage). I still have get to dive right in, but watch out!  HA

A sample of my first work or art.  Cute little labels that are now affixed to anything I can affix to.  The label above means the bread for cheese.  I also have other bags for my dozens of loaves of bread including Le pain pour le vin (for wine) and Le pain de confiture (jam).  My poor son doesn't know what to do when he sees the labels as he took Spanish instead of French in high school (much to my disappointment), but he's getting the hang of it here and there!

Anyway, since I have so much Pain de fromage, I'm sharing my bounty with all of my yard friends and am happy to admit my bread is a smash hit with not only the European Starlings but Ring-billed Gulls who fight over the stuff (they were on the roof to my house when Alan picked me up this morning- don't tell Ken)

In fact, the birds fancied it so much that some of the Blue Jays were preferring that to the peanuts I just threw out to them (I see baker in my future!)

Under cover photo of the corvid in action.

In my continuing domestic spree I've acquired another object somehow (this time from eBay) which is a copper jam pot from France!  SWOON!  I've wanted one of these since the 1st year I started canning considering the French are known for their mouth watering jams and preserves and a lot of it has to do with their methods including the use of copper pots which allows less cooking time for it to get to the set stage, which means the fruit tastes better as it's not cooked for as long.  The one thing about unlined copper though is it can have a chemical reaction to acid which means citrus preserves are a "no no" so I bought some organic frozen strawberries at Wegman's to try and make some jam with my copper pot.

Ready to make its debut!!!

And the co-star!

The final outcome!!  While the berries were not farm fresh and local I do have to say not only did the jam taste wonderful but the consistency was better than any other jam I've ever made with only half the time so it will be well worth the investment when I'm canning in summer when birding picks up as I can whip up a batch in a flash between birding, working, household tasks, etc... Perfect for my pain de confiture as you can see above and also the thé (tea, must make label for that).

My quest for perfection doesn't stop there though as I'm still up to my elbows with organic citrus and another batch of grapefruit marmalade but this time it's going to be my own creation as I looked all over google and no canner has ever made a marmalade with citrus infused with pine tea via pine needles from Wachusett Reservoir until now!!  Of course I'm a little leery considering no one has ever thought of it before but heck, both citrus and pine and clean and refreshing so why not!!  This won't get done until later in the weekend so check back for results, woot!!!

As you can see I've been real busy lately!!!  I look at it more as being prepared of course and doing my own version of "prepping" and feel good in knowing if there was ever a zombie apocalypse I'd have enough jam, marmalade, pickles and wine to get me through it!

Take care all.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

First of the Year birding and more marmalade!

Id do some birding with Alan Saturday with the 1st stop being the Worcester Airport in hopes for Snow Buntings, a wishful Lapland Longspur and of course the Horned Larks.  The place would be bare the 1st time around so off we went to spot number two.

Which would be Hardwick for the reported Evening Grosbeaks and sure enough we'd hear them as soon as we got out of the car.  After a few moments of searching we'd find them but be dismayed over how skittish they appeared which made for disappointing looks as well as photos.  None the less, we were able to get half way decent binocular views of them which would make for my first official 2013 lifer and now the only other winter finch life bird I need are the Hoary Redpolls.  Woot!

  Another lousy and out of focus view!

And speaking of redpolls, it would be here we'd also get our FOY Common as well as Alan's FOY American Tree Sparrow which made for a very productive spot!

Next it would be a quick drive through the airport again where I'd be happy to get my FOY Horned Lark.  The little bugger was all by itself and skittish but we did manage to watch it for a bit as it proceeded to try and peck at the ice with its bill for something underneath which made for some interesting watching!

Next would be Wachusett Country Club were I'd get my FOY Pine Grosbeak and have a sigh of relief as it's nice to have both grosbeaks checked off my list for the year so I won't have to chase them next winter considering how scarce they can be especially the Pine that's NEVER a guarantee.

The next stop would be off Route 140 of the Wachusett Reservoir for ducks.  There are pockets of ice here and there including the one above but lots of open water making this a "hot spot" for ducks this time of the year!

And we'd be very happy to have some Scaup fairly close to the shore which made for some really nice scope looks of the many Greater and few Lesser Scaup mixed in for good measure and both of these would be FOY's.  We'd also get both Goldeneye and all three common gulls which would make for another productive stop.  I should note I'm really loving this strategic birding this time of the year when I'm known to hibernate.  Saturday's weather was wonderful though and was able to get a lot of birds checked off my list which made for a wonderful morning.

I'd then head home and do some cooking and work on another bird list of mine for the year which is my "booze" bird list.  My goal is to sample as much alcohol as I can that's bird related with a special focus on beer and wine of course but will consider spirits if that spirit is named after or related in anyway to a prized bird.  The first on my list is what I believe to be a Snow Goose with this Mild Winter beer.  While the beer looks dark it wasn't at all heavy.  I do have to admit I was expecting something a little more flavorful and think I'm just spoiled with my darker beers after sampling all of the Smuttynose brands which are all out of this world.

The next beer would be Red Tail, Woot!!  Let me tell you I had high expectations for this brew considering the bird but would once again be let down as it wasn't as bold as I thought it should be.  I'm now on the hunt for the same brewers Peregrine Falcon ale so keep you eyes open for future posts!  ;-)

Fueled by beer and crackers I'd get a head start on my bread which would be done by hand vs. the bread machine as one of my new goals for the year is mastering the art of artisan bread making.  I'd make my batch up and put in the fridge to let it rise in the morning for my 1st ever baguettes.

I'd be thrilled to be able to sleep in this morning and wake up after the sun rose where my morning visitors were all ready around eating breakfast and chatting about which made for a nice way to wake up.   They'd be around the entire time I cooked Sunday morning including a Common Redpoll!!  Bummed it only stuck around for a few minutes and would be gone before I thought of the camera and has not come back since but I'll take it none the less for my yard list!

The next order of business would be getting my Texas Rio Red Grapefruit ready for preserving for some grapefruit, jalapeno pepper marmalade!

The overnight soak to help off set some of the bitterness of the rind.

Bread dough rising.  Well not really, but I'll get to that in a bit.  I'd be up to my elbows in grated carrots for a carrot salad to last me the week when my cell phone would ring and it would be Alan telling me the skittish Gadwall was nearby in Sutton so of course I'd drop what I was doing and get dressed in a hurry for the bird hoping I wouldn't see anyone as I was covered in both carrots and flour!

Sigh, the best photo I could manage and now you all know why I'm so fond of taking pictures of food lately, at least it sits still and isn't covered by trees!  Super sweet FOY and special thanks to Alan again as I never got this bird in 2012!

Back home to finish my carrot salad which I would dress with some olive oil, meyer lemon and tangerine white vinegar I made last week.  So tasty and it lasts all week making for a nice side dish for the week with dinner or even snacks for that matter!

Dinner for the next few days to use some of the organic turkey I was able to score last month so made some sauce and meatballs to go with pasta.

And of course I had to sample it to make sure it wasn't poison!

And next would be the most time consuming project of the day which was my marmalade.  This is what my kitchen looks like BEFORE I get everything into the canner.  As you can see newspaper is a Godsent!

And the after.  I have to say it came out delicious (picture a fresh grapefruit you eat with nothing but a spoon and a bit of sugar!  Going forward I would have added another pepper though as there wasn't half as much heat as I wanted but it's yummy none the less!

And now for my bomb of the day the bread.  I'v relied far too long on the bread maker which has made me lazy and made me forget what it takes to create and knead a good bread.   I knew I had a disaster on my hands before even baking it but decided to do it anyways as lesson learned.  It still tastes like bread but not at all light inside which is how I like it.  Going forward I think I'm going to use the food processor for stage one and then I'll do the kneading for stage two as it's all about baby steps of course!

Anyway, it was a great way to spend the weekend and for the 1st time in a while I actually feel recharged which is much needed after the holidays and all.  Looking forward to the warmer temps this week and getting some more FOY birds if I can even during the work week as it isn't that hard this time of the year and can get many just driving in your car!

Take care all.


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