Saturday, May 5, 2012

Pelee 2012, and, beware birding hubris

Oh, spring migration. My favourite, bar none, time of year. I mean, I love fall, and I'm a winter fan, and I can even find things to like about the sticky summer days, but spring, with its warblers and its butterflies... there is nothing like it.

I haven't been out as much in this area as I'd perhaps like, but wonder of wonders, we made it to Pelee. It was quite different for us this year; we normally go and go hard for three to five days, with multiple stops at Hillman Marsh, a night at Wheatley Provincial Park, a day or a day and a bit at Pelee, and then two or three days in Rondeau. This year we hit Hillman on our way down, stayed at a little cottage just outside Point Pelee National Park, birded the park for a day and a half and then made our way back home. We have a small appendage, you see, who to her credit does very, very well with hours in a carrier or a stroller outside while her parents see as many birds as they can -- but even her best is somewhat less than my preferred seven to ten hours of hiking and birdwatching.

So it meant that we were a lot more circumspect. We all went home for a nap in the afternoon. We kept moving, as smallfry does not like to be kept standing still. We were careful about taking her where there were lots of other people, so as not to disturb them -- she's not a noisy or fussy baby, but she does like to talk. Sometimes talking is actually yelling. fishy was wonderful, allowing me to take off and get serious while he walked circles around the Tip.

Sleep deprivation takes its toll, too. I'm known to be a bit quick off the mark with my identifications sometimes; I can be a bit overconfident. This admission does not come easily. It's embarrassing. Let's call this next part therapy, because I made two really bad mistakes this time around -- the first one IDing a calling bird as a Olive-Sided Flycatcher (which I know I am not good with, call-wise, despite the fact that its call is very distinct) when it was really a White-Eyed Vireo -- a nice sighting, to be sure, but definitely not an Olive-Sided Flycatcher. Here, though, I knew something was wrong with my ID, so I spent the time hanging around until I finally saw the little blighter. The second was worse, and it pains me to admit this one. We saw a Red-Headed Woodpecker -- first one reported on the Woodland Trail in the sightings book, so I was excited. Too excited, because I identified it, in the sightings book, as male.

Even though I know, I really honestly do know, one does not identify Red-Headed Woodpeckers as male or female by sight, because it is not possible to do so. fishy kindly told me, once I'd realized what I'd done, that we did watch it for a while and it didn't lay any eggs, so it definitely could have been male.


Anyway, now that's out of my system. Lesson learned: especially when going on less than six hours of good solid sleep, be careful. And do not write anything down where other people can see it.

Overall we were lucky. We came home about thirty species lighter than last year, missing some odd things like chickadees (really) and Red-Eyed Vireos, and we just barely got a Brown Thrasher. But we hit a couple of waves of small migrants down at the Tip, and both of us came away with lifers -- for fishy, American Pipit, and for both of us, Eared Grebe. Each of us got excellent looks at those species, too. Other notables, especially given that we were also in the park about two weeks earlier than we normally are: Blue-Winged Warblers, a Willet (at Hillman), and a metric tonne of Nashville Warblers, to go along with the metric tonne of Yellow-Rumps. Thanks to our timing, we also managed to see a lot more Gadwalls and Shovelers at Hillman than we ever have before, and an enormous flock (relative to the single individuals we usually see) of Rusty Blackbirds on the Woodland Trail.

It was a success, if a different sort of success we're used to. Next year we'll go just the two of us again; it will be years before smallfry is ready for a Pelee experience she will actually remember. I'm already looking forward to next year. I am going to bird until it's too dark to see, or until my feet fall off, or until I get serious warbler-neck. And then I'll get up at 8am the next morning and do it again.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

lazy birder no more

I've been watching birds for a long time now (as a kid I used to sleep with the full-sized Eastern Peterson's beside my bed -- okay, who am I kidding, in my bed) and I think I'm a pretty decent birdwatcher. That said, there are some pretty glaring holes in my repertoire. I've never met a small sandpiper ("peep") I could happily identify with complete certainty, for example, aside from the very small Sanderlings and Dunlin. Sparrows used to be a thorn in my side, except for a few very common and distinctive species. And gulls? There are only two gulls, right? Ring-Billed and Herring?

It's very easy to just dismiss these groups as being ridiculously hard to tell apart, and just be satisfied with my ability to ID the rest quickly and efficiently by sight and/or sound. But if I want to continue to consider myself a serious birder -- and I most emphatically do -- I can't keep being lazy about the groups I find hard.

So finally, over the past few years, I've started taking on these groups. Sparrows are actually pretty easy, now that I know where to look for the distinguishing characteristics. They're still the same small, brown, stripy birds, but I've worked on figuring out it over the years and rather than seeing a small, browns, stripy bird and going "Ugh, sparrow sp." I can look at it and say -- "Okay, it has a bright pink beak, and it's kind of grayish and boring on the face, huh, that must be a Field Sparrow." That was almost my exact line of thought when one turned up at the feeder last fall. I had to get out the book to confirm the pink beak diagnosis, but I was correct, and it felt great.

See, this is the thing. There's a certain amount of satisfaction in being able to see something flying by in a blur and say what it is immediately. But there's also a great amount of satisfaction in working at an ID and getting it right. Another case in point: gulls.

This past week someone tipped me off to the fact that someone we both know had identified Glaucous Gulls at a reservoir I regularly frequent for birdwatching purposes. Previously I'd just been looking at the mass of white and grey and black birds, catching the size difference, and being all "Ring-Billed and Herring, check" then moving on to look for ducks, which I have no trouble IDing and which I quite enjoy looking for. I told my friend that I wouldn't know a Glaucous Gull from a hole in the ground, and he said "Well, apparently there's no black on the wing."

Huh, I thought, that seems easy enough.

And it was. The lack of black combined with their size, there was nothing else those three big pale gulls could have been. I wouldn't have even looked for them if someone hadn't mentioned they were there and what their key field marking is. Gulls have a couple of things to differentiate them -- their wingtips, the colouration under their wing, their head colour, and, critically, their beak and leg colour. I have enough practice identifying that sort of marking in other groups of birds, it's just a matter of not being lazy and applying my skills to this group that I've previously deemed too frustrating to bother with.

It's satisfying on several levels -- puzzling it out and IDing to a level of certainty I'm happy with, adding birds to my life list, and feeling like I'm growing as a birdwatcher and expanding my skill set.

Friday, March 9, 2012

butterflies in early March

zebra longwing

Yesterday was gross and rainy -- not good hiking weather. So we went for a walk indoors instead. There's something to be said for warmth, light and green at this time of year. I hadn't been to the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory in years, so I thought it might be time for a revisit.

It's not a big place, but it's very pleasant. Outside the glasshouse there's a couple of spaces for exhibits; the permanent exhibit is about Insects of the World and there's a space for rotating exhibits. This one was on bats (woot!) and though not very large it was quite informative. My only complaint about their interpretation in both the galleries is that there's an awful lot of verbiage and it's often very small font. smallfry liked looking at the colourful insects under glass, though. She particularly liked looking at the live honeybees in the honeybee exhibit.


The glasshouse is really pleasant. Lots of green, a comfortable humidity and a slightly tropical heat (around 24C). There's the constant sound of water running, thanks to two waterfalls and a little stream that runs around the entire place. There were others there, but it wasn't terribly crowded on a Thursday morning.

owl butterfly

There are butterflies everywhere. When we got there, sort of mid-morning, there weren't a lot flying around; don't know if the light wasn't right, or they're perhaps late risers? but by the time I left after the lunch hour, there were butterflies flying everywhere. It's a very pretty effect.

can't remember what this one is called, but they're one of my favourites

There are also many, many birds. They have ornamental finches in spades (who were collecting nesting material as I was there, so one expects there will be more ornamental finches at some point in the near future, unless staff find the nests) and there are a couple of quails, and new to me this time was a green-cheeked conure hanging out across from the hatching station.

his name, poor thing, is "Cheecho"

The hatching station is where the butterfly chrysalides are hung to hatch. The Conservatory gets all their chrysalides from farms in the tropics; I'm not sure whether any of the butterflies they already have ever lay eggs, and I didn't ask. One suspects that though the finches leave the [live, healthy] butterflies alone that caterpillars might not be so lucky. Not sure they have the right food plants for the butterfly species they have either. At any rate, they hatch from their well-travelled chrysalides in a special area open to the rest of the conservatory, where the staff have the chrysalides all labelled carefully and where you can watch the butterflies chilling out, pumping their wings full and resting before they flutter off into the wider conservatory.

the chrysalides hang from sticks in the middle panel

I didn't spend time talking to anyone; smallfry and I did a couple of circuits, I practiced with the camera (still need a lot more practice, I think) and then we sat for a while. A very nice way to spend a couple of hours on a rainy, windy March day.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

my favourite muffins (currently)

When the going gets tough, I tend to get baking. Unfortunately, that means that two of us often end up eating enough baked goods to kill a small horse. When the baking is things like cookies or these awesome Overnight Cinnamon Rolls this is a problem, because the small horse would have died of heart disease, probably.

So I have been on a quest to find healthier things to bake, and thought I'd share my current favourite muffin recipe. I know it says "bran" in the recipe there, but these are light muffins, not the dense, chewy, cardboardy pucks that can sometimes result from heightened fibre content. It's a modified Canadian Living recipe, from the "Honey Bran Muffins" recipe in their Complete Canadian Living Cookbook (an excellent cookbook that I use regularly for all sorts of things.)

Wet ingredients:
2 eggs
1 cup plain yoghurt
1/3 cup milk
1/3 cup canola oil (although I often use slightly less)
1/4 cup liquid honey
2 tsp vanilla

1 1/2 cups 100% or all- bran cereal 

Dry ingredients:
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt

1 1/2 cups raisins (or chopped prunes work really nicely too)

Preheat the oven to 375F (190C).

In a medium bowl, whisk together all the wet ingredients. Stir in the bran cereal and let stand for at least five minutes.

In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. Pour the bran mixture over the dry ingredients, add raisins, and mix just to combine.

Spoon into muffin cups and cook for 25 minutes or until golden brown and tester comes out of centre clean.

Makes ~12 muffins.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

hiking on camera

My stay-sane-and-happy plans appear to be mostly working, though I'll slip up every once in a while (like yesterday) and stay inside on a glorious day just because getting out is too much damn work. But generally I've been hiking someplace most days when it's not too windy or precipitating. I take the baby and the binoculars and off we go. We've seen some great new trails, and I'm birding up a storm.

The problem is I don't generally take the camera. I recently picked up a new (used) lens for our DSLR on kijiji -- it's a great lens for the price, and aside from being a little heavier than the old lens and not doing macro at all, it's fabulous. The key use I saw for it was taking photos of birds in the backyard, particularly the feeders, but it's always very tempting to take it walking too. Only it's heavy, and a little awkward, and I generally have the maximum number of things strapped to me that I can comfortably handle.

As is the general law of cameras, though, every time I go out without it I see something that would make a great photo. The walk last week where my friend Lorax and I were surrounded by Cedar Waxwings at eye-level and five feet away? Would have been nice to have the camera for that. The walk before where Mom and I had great looks at some Brown Creepers less than ten feet away? Also would have been nice. I don't pretend to be excellent with the camera; I am at best a somewhat enthusiastic novice. But something like the waxwings would have been hard to miss.

Friday, February 10, 2012

these binoculars were made for walking

There has been a confluence of forces in my life that has conspired to turn me into someone who searches out new trails in the area on a nearly daily basis. First, I am now officially home alone with a baby during the weekdays (lucky me, I wasn't until very recently) and second, eBird.

The first reason for my almost pathological need to get out of the house should be self-evident. The added challenge that smallfry is still not supposed to be exposed to respiratory infections if we can avoid it at all means that I'm cut off from the traditional activities parents on leave might do with their little people. So I need to find ways to get out safely, otherwise I start to go crazy with only my own thoughts to occupy me. It's amazing what an anxious, fearful, sad bent they can take. smallfry is good company, but not always the most stimulating or even distracting companion. Hiking is perfect -- it bites a chunk out of my day doing something worthwhile that doesn't involve me stewing.

The second reason I've been on a hiking kick is eBird. Now, I've always been a birdwatcher, sometimes more casual and sometimes pretty hard-core, though I'm not what one might call a "twitcher." It's just not how I roll, though I see the appeal. I am not going to go out of my way to see something unusual, even if it's only half an hour away; I'm happy to see it if I stumble upon it, but I'm happiest just hiking along and watching whatever comes my way. Although... well, I'll admit to twitching the Yellow-Throated Warbler at Rondeau in spring 2011 since we were there anyway. And... I twitched the Summer Tanager at Pelee in 2010, but again, we were right there. And... well, let's just say that if there was a reliable report of a Kirtland's Warbler within half an hour of my current location, I would probably drop what I was doing and twitch that pretty hard. ANYWAY.

What I do like is data entry. I ... I really love data entry. Even more, I love to watch masses of data I've entered gradually growing into a statistical picture that reflects my experience. Something like eBird is like candy to me. Delicious, easily-accessible, free candy that almost might be good for you. In that reporting to eBird is good for science!

What I've realized through entering my backlists into eBird are a couple of things: first, for someone who likes data so much, I've been pretty pathetic about keeping it. I've seen a lot more birds than I've ever written down on a list; I've done a lot of birdwatching list-free. This is not necessarily because birdwatching is more fun list-free, it's more because I am lazy and/or disorganized. I really like keeping lists when I can be arsed to find a pen and paper.

The second thing I've realized is that I've not done a lot of birdwatching in my own backyard. We go places to birdwatch; Panama, Cuba, Bruce County, Point Pelee, Rondeau... but I don't really do a lot of birding around here, and that's a shame.

So that dovetails nicely with my need to get out. Turns out smallfry is a pretty excellent birding companion. She sleeps in her stroller, as long as we keep moving at reasonable intervals. She really, really enjoys her new carrier, in which she can be strapped to my front facing outwards (leaves my hands free, and we can hike on less-smooth trails, and she can see what is going on, which is paramount.) In the past week we've birded three different locations in the region, only one of which I'd ever been to before (and even there we walked much further than I've walked there before.) The fruits of our labours have included a juvenile Bald Eagle seen flying over the river today and many more Common Mergansers than I customarily see, since I like my warm and comfy house at this time of year. (Don't get me started about the weather, though; as much as I like getting out in the warm sun in early February, it's creeping me the hell out.)

The payoff? Lots of birds, meaning lots of data to add to eBird, and smallfry is sleeping well at nights thanks to all the fresh air, and I am getting that last little bit of pregnancy weight off, but most importantly I am feeling good. I've got a list of places I'm looking forward to hiking, and a growing list of places I'm looking forward to revisiting at regular intervals throughout the year. I suppose the exercise is its own reward, though that's never been enough for me. But hiking to watch for birds -- there's always something interesting to see.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

she bakes, she bakes

More baking adventures. It appears that I have... well, not perfected, and not even mastered, but accomplished the art of a reasonable flatbread. First there was pizza dough, which I have made using Alton Brown's recipe (you may detect a theme here) and that has generally turned out. We've eaten a lot of pizza; each time I make the dough it gets better. So practice is clearly a component. Next up with pizza adventures: I'm going to try Alton's grilled flatbread pizza recipe. You know, because winter's such a great time for grilling.

I have also accomplished a reasonable facimile of a sort of mana'eesh, a Middle Eastern flatbread that is essentially a pizza with za'atar on it instead of tomato sauce and pepperoni. I'll make this one again, I think, and up the oven temperature from the 400 F the recipe called for; my mana'eesh didn't really brown, though they were quite tasty all the same. And very, very easy, except for the part where my pizza stone can only support two at a time.

also, za'atar is extremely delicious

Finally, today I accomplished homemade bagels. They're not beautiful, but wow are they tasty. I did them the traditional way, poaching them in boiling water with baking soda and malt syrup before baking. They weren't blatantly flavourful the way, say, a store-bought bagel is; they were better. The texture was flat-out awesome. They had a subtle flavour; something not quite sweet, not quite savoury. They were a fair bit of work; a pre-ferment, then mixing and kneading the dough, then another rise, then shaping them and leaving them in the fridge overnight, then poaching (which I could only do two at a time) and then baking (which I could only do four at a time.) And things are a little time-sensitive when it comes to the poaching-draining-baking thing, so I'm not sure I'll be doing much of them when I'm home alone with smallfry. But as a weekend baking activity I'll definitely pull this recipe out again. I may have been ruined by these bagels; I'm pretty sure I'll never be able to go back to store-bought.

Incidentally, for those looking for a good mana'eesh or bagel recipe, I got both from Daniel Leader's Simply Great Breads book. My current copy is the library's but I'm pretty sure I'll be buying one. The failed bialys were from this book too, so my record with it is not perfect, but there are at least two recipes there that worked out well, and several more that I'd like to try (cider doughnuts being first on the list.)

I just ate another half-bagel, just to confirm that they really are that tasty. So. Good.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

turkey tracks

Or I think they are.

Got out for a true winter walk today near my parents' house. They live across the road from a regional forest, and while it's perhaps not the most beautiful place in the world, it's familiar and a good snowfall, like the one we had last night, makes the whole place that much more lovely.

I quite enjoy poking around looking at tracks in the snow; aside from the usual people and dogs, today we had:
  • voles
  • deer mice
  • grey squirrels
  • red squirrels
  • red fox
  • turkeys I think

The turkey tracks are new for me. We haven't always had turkey in those woods, though they definitely are there now, and I was staring at the tracks wondering what bird could possibly be pottering around the wintery woods and leaving tracks like that. They were far too big to be grouse -- but once I had hit on grouse, the thought that they must be turkey hit not far behind. I wondered about a pheasant for a while, as those have been known to be there too, but... I am not sure. I am really leaning towards turkey. The toes seem a bit more splayed than pheasant toes apparently are.

The photos are taken with my dad's Blackberry, which I must say rather impressed me. We had it in case of smallfry meltdown; she has started making strange, so we left the house only when she was asleep and planned to return at speed if she woke up before we got back. She didn't.

We heard chickadees and a red-breasted nuthatch. Well, I am extrapolating a little here, as I'm good but I'm not good enough to tell red-breasted from white-breasted nuthatch songs in absense of both -- but white-breasted nuthatches are an exception there, where red-breasted are common as nails. Also had a pretty excellent look at a pair of golden-crowned kinglets.

All in all, a very pleasant saunter. If anyone thinks I've misidentified these tracks, drop me a comment. Otherwise I'll spend the rest of my life thinking they're turkey tracks.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

teach a girl to bake

I have a problem.

I am a compulsive follower of recipes. I cannot not follow a recipe. And I'm not very good at cooking if I don't have a recipe to follow. This makes me a rather poor cook, but a pretty decent baker. I like baking and baking is a precise art. It's not so precise that a little slip-up here or there can't be recovered from, but it's precise enough that one should have a recipe and one should follow it. Usually a followed recipe when baking means a reasonably delicious outcome.

Unless, I am learning, the baked good is yeast breads. There is magic to yeast breads, and I haven't quite mastered it yet. My suspicion is that the problem has to do with my blind recipe-following and the fact that I'm not entirely sure of the reasons behind the recipe.

Take, for example, these attempted bialys.

we both think they look like onion-topped nipples; the resemblance is disturbing

I followed the recipe exactly, including the careful pricking of the centres so that they wouldn't do exactly what they did. They taste fine, but the experience of eating them is somewhat less than satisfying.

The thing I am realizing is that I need a little more understanding of the science behind baking. Chemistry was not my favourite subject in university, to say the least, but this is chemistry I can eat. And when it's taught to me by people like Alton Brown on Good Eats, well, I can get in to chemistry. Once I learn a bit more about why yeast breads do the magical things they do, I think I can follow -- or adapt, or embellish -- recipes with more confidence.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Project FeederWatch and Battle of the Squirrels

Bookwyrme (who has a fun spidery blog, btw) asks an excellent question: What is Project FeederWatch?

PFW is a citizen science program run jointly by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (when I was a kid, my dream workplace, until I realized I wasn't really cut out for either academia or emigrating) and Bird Studies Canada. For a small fee (which goes towards program upkeep) anyone with bird feeders can pick two days/week to identify and count the bird species and individuals that show up to eat, then report their findings. It runs from November - April every year. I've been wanting to participate since I was a kid. Now that I'm off for the winter and spend a lot of time nursing a baby, I figured I could do most of my nursing in front of the window and thus count birds while I do it.

So far it's been a lot of fun. I like counting things. I especially like reporting things I've counted and watching the statistics pile up. I have always kept half-assed track of the birds I see in the backyard, but it's interesting to keep a detailed record and see what's really going on.

Thus far this year I've seen ten species at the feeder during count days. I've actually seen thirteen, but none of the the white-throated sparrow, field sparrow, or my favourite red-breasted nuthatches have shown up on a count day so I can't report them (actually, all three disappeared right around the time the program started, perversely). Weekly we average about eight species and roughly twenty-three individuals. Juncos used to be the most numerous species, but they've really dropped over the past few weeks (this week I only saw three at one time) and goldfinches have picked up the slack, with a record nine individuals at one time yesterday. I have some regulars -- a trio of chickadees, a pair of cardinals, a downey woodpecker -- and some birds who I know are there but don't always show up on count days, like the white-breasted nuthatches and the blue jays.

The worst trouble I have is an escalating battle with the squirrels. On a bad day, the squirrels go through most of my seed and keep the birds away, and on a really bad day they can break feeders. The feeder in the foreground of the photo has been the most resilient -- the only feeder I've owned for more than three years that hasn't been busted by squirrels in one way or another. Last year's new, expensive feeder was broken and useless in a week. That was purchased after my "squirrel proof" feeder (which actually really was squirrel proof for most of the time it was up) finally bit it when they broke the roof to get in to the seed.

I don't dislike squirrels, exactly, destructive little bastards though they are. They're cute and fascinating to watch, and watching them trying to figure out the latest baffle system is really interesting. But I don't like that they fatten up on our seed while the birds, whom we buy the seed for, go hungry waiting for the squirrels to finish stuffing themselves.

Thus the escalation in tactics -- the suet feeder is benefitting from the latest baffle design, with a long chain covered by a PVC pipe on top of a Swiss Chalet take-out lid. The PVC is to prevent the squirrels from hanging on their hind feet on the chain, pulling the baffle up and snorfing down the suet by hunks. The feeder in the foreground will shortly benefit from the same treatment, though that won't stop the squirrels from leaping from the trellis onto the feeder from the side (this is truly amazing to watch). It's not about making the feeders completely squirrel proof, because I honestly don't believe there's such a thing. What we are trying to do is make the cost of getting the seed directly from the feeder higher than the cost of sitting under the feeders eating what falls when the birds eat. I'll let you know how that goes.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

my annual blog entry

Okay, let's talk about this. Let's talk about the fact that I have not done anything with this blog for over a year. Let's talk about the fact that apparently there is still a third entry about Panama coming (look, I promise nothing. It might show up, it might not. I've forgotten stuff, although lots of it is still pretty clear.)

The thing is, a lot has changed. I got comfortable in my new position at work. I had a baby (that was kind of a big thing.) I worked hard on the garden, which didn't make too much of a difference; fishy's done a bunch of renovations around the house, which has made a lot of difference, and lots of books got read and lots of birds got seen and a little bit of writing got done.

It's funny, because it doesn't feel like I've neglected this blog so totally. I still feel quite attached to it. So I think I will keep trying to update it, perhaps a bit more now that I'm home for a while. I'll keep using it for home and garden stuff; I'm doing Project FeederWatch this year, so we may hear some about that. I've got big plans for the garden (when do I not?) and I'm trying to be more faithful about uploading photos from my camera.

What this blog is not going to be is a "mommy blog." Nothing against them, and I'm sure things related to smallfry will show up every once in a while -- our first birding adventure, our first gardening adventure, that sort of thing -- but I don't feel the need to discuss everything, or really anything, about my daughter online. Suffice to say that being a mother is a hell of a lot of work, but it's also exceedingly fascinating and fun and getting more so; so I'll write about it sometimes but the focus is still going to be on my nature, gardening, cooking, and various attempts at crafting interests.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I hear the siren song of the naptime. Hopefully I'll be back here sometime before next January...