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.