05 January 2008

Dinner's Been Good

I have to put my ego aside for a few minutes and tell you that we've eaten really well for the last week or so. Mandi's done the shopping and the decision making for the last 10 or 12 days, and while I wasn't thrilled about having those responsibilities usurped, I most certainly have benefited from it. Everything we've made has been added to the Recipe List , with the exception of last night's lighter and more homemade version of Cheeseburger Macaroni. It was tastier than anything that ever wore the "Helper" nametag, and far better for you. The best part is that the kiddos really won't know the difference between it and the boxed stuff (I know because Avery ate some of it, and she's the pickiest eater in the known universe). Seriously, Mandi took the time to get up early yesterday, put biscuits in the oven, and make the girls a nice hot ham, egg, and cheese biscuit sandwich for breakfast on an 18 degree morning. Ave peeled one flake off of the biscuit, tried it, then turned up her nose and asked for a plain biscuit instead. This after she'd told me on Wednesday that she didn't need any lunch because she'd had a bacon egg and cheese biscuit from McDonald's at 9:00 and she was still full from eating every last bite of it. Sometimes I think there are five of her that rotate days . . four stay hidden in her room somewhere at all times and the other one comes out. This would explain the completely random tastes, moods, and attitudes that it seems couldn't possibly all come from one kid. But I digress . .

I have not yet delved into the task of rearranging the items on the website and making it more search-friendly, but I made the promise and you can rest assured I'll make good on it in due time. For now, I've put a small "*new" tag in orange next to some of the most recent additions, so if you've not visited the list in a while you can more easily identify some of the newer recipes. I highly recommend the Gnocchi with Sausage and Spinach , which we were only able to make after Mandi located the gnocchi in the dried pasta section of the grocery store. I had looked for it unsuccessfully on two or three previous trips. Some stores, such as Trader Joe's or Whole Foods also offer it in the deli or fresh pasta section, and I'd certainly recommend that if it's an option for you. Enjoy, and be sure to leave your feedback on our recipes in the form of comments.

A Big Surprise

A few days ago I got a very big surprise at my new tray feeder in the willow tree, one I honestly never thought I'd get. A big part of adding new and different kinds of feeders to my yard this winter was the expectation that they would attract different birds for us to see. Nothing against Mourning Doves, I actually quite like to watch them as they puff up their feathers to stay warm and decorate the fence, but they already had a spot to feed right next to our living room window. I got Song Sparrows the day after I hung the new feeder, which was a bird I'd never had in the yard before. But somehow its nondescript markings and ironic lack of an interesting song did not excite me too much. I figured that having been in the tree for over 3 weeks the prospect of the tray feeder luring any more new birds at this point was relatively weak. You can only imagine my delight, then, when I peered out the window and spotted a female Northern Cardinal in the tree just above the feeder and her bright red male counterpart cleaning up some spilled seeds on the ground below it. At first when I saw the female through the screened window and slightly foggy morning I mistook her for a Mourning Dove, as their coloring is roughly the same when viewed from the front. But then the striking pink bill surrounded by black of the Cardinal stood out to me and I knew exactly what was visiting. I yelled to Mandi and I think she thought I'd cut my finger off or something I was so worked up, but I called her over and she watched with me as the male hopped up in to the feeder, poked around and then flew away with what I have to assume is his mate.
I was elated, but at the same time I worried that they'd found the seed I offered in the tray less than adequate, and that was the reason for their abbreviated visit. I braved the cold and went to check the feeder, and it was worse than I'd expected. There was a grand total of 4 seeds left in the tray, a result I'm sure of the Mourning Doves eating extra to add calories on an especially cold night. I hurried in to the garage and poured what was left of the discount seed I'd bought into the tray and kept watch the rest of the day for the Cardinals to return. I didn't see any sign of them again until after 5:00 when the sun was starting to set, at which point the male took a perch on top of my grill for a minute or two and then flew off without a trip to the feeder.

Happily, the next morning I spotted the pair again taking turns with the doves in the feeder. Lily and I made a trip yesterday to buy some black-oil sunflower seeds to replace the mixed seed we'd been offering, knowing that it's the food of choice of the cardinals. I know that Northern Cardinals are quite common feeder birds and that their decision to feed on my offerings should not be a major surprise, but their tendency is to remain closer to areas that are dominated by older-growth trees and woods. There are plenty of adequate habitats for the cardinals in our development, but I always felt like we were a little too far away from them to attract them. I suppose I'm benefiting in some way from other backyard bird feeders letting their trays go empty as this week's weather has been the season's coldest by far, but I'll take it. Hopefully the cardinals will treat me the way I always hoped my guests at the restaurant would, offering loyalty in return for attentive service. Now if I could just get some patrons at the peanut feeder and the suet block . .

02 January 2008

Starting Off With A . . . Chirp?

While some fireworks in the neighborhood technically did start my New Year's Day with a bang, the day focused on time spent with family and my pursuit of new birds. With Mandi struggling to ambulate following a night at work, Lily and I saw an opportunity to head outside and kick-start our Big Year. While she doesn't really understand the concept of the Big Year, she will regardless be a big part of my discoveries this year. So we left the house yesterday a little after 9 in the morning for a few of my favorite local birding spots. The first location is a road that winds along the back side of a local reservoir and is lined with old, dilapidated houses on the other side. No more than ten minutes after we drove up and started looking for birds in the underbrush did an 80+ year old man come by to wish us a Happy New Year. Actually, he stopped to ask "What the hell we were doing?" I explained we were watching birds and he proceeded to tell me that they'd had a string of break-ins and that he'd "Dern near called the po-lice" when he'd spotted me. Break-ins . . really? These houses barely had roofs and windows. My guess is the local raccoons were just coming in at night and pilfering the lunchmeat and leftovers. I politely (and admittedly a bit sarcastically) told him I was sorry to hear about the break-ins, but that we were just there to see some birds. This exact spot was where I'd seen a small group of Cedar Waxwings devouring the berries off of a tree last year, and the lake was home to a lot of different species of ducks. He recommended I put a sign in our window indicating that we were just watching birds, as if somehow that would prevent one of the hungover rednecks in the neighborhood from taking pot shots at us with his Winchester. So I wrote "We're Watching Birds" on a 2.5"x4" piece of paper and stuck it in the corner of the windshield, just to appease the old man. Seriously though, do you figure the people breaking in to the houses are scoping the place out at 9:30 in the morning with the headlights on and their kid in the backseat watching Curious George? Just go back inside and watch Judge Judy like you normally do old man . .

Anyway, that part of the trip paid off with the addition of the Field Sparrow and the Mallard to our list of birds spotted. Sparrows, while small and not overly interesting, are some of the harder birds to ID because there are so many different species and the differences are often subtle. If I'm going to make it to 150 species for the year with no extensive travel I'll need to positively ID all of the local sparrows. I've got Song Sparrows that visit the tray feeder in the back yard, and while I haven't seen any yet this year there are White-throated Sparrows at the nature trail in our neighborhood. The Field Sparrow is distinguishable by its pink bill and relatively unmarked breast. The Mallard is another one I surely would have gotten eventually as a pair is usually seen hanging around down in the nature trail, but the 6 pair on the lake allowed me to add them to the list on Day 1.

Then it was off to the McEachern Greenway near Downtown Concord to look for a few more species I'd seen there in the past, and maybe a few surprises. I'd packed a little cooler of snacks and offered a "snack picnic" at a nearby park as an incentive for Lily to tolerate the long walk in the wind and cold. She was actually pretty excited to get out of the car, and went as far as to ask me if I could show her some Cardinals. I'm pretty sure they're her favorite. I hoped I could oblige her, and just a few hundred feet into the walk they appeared, two beautiful males playing out in the grass near the road. She was thrilled!

We continued down the path and found more Field Sparrows, a playful pair of Carolina Chickadees, and one of my favorite small birds the Tufted Titmouse. These little guys were within a hundred feet of the spot where I'd seen them the last time we took this walk, and I was happy to be able to add them to the list. As we turned back I spotted a male Red-bellied Woodpecker climbing up one of the trees near the water. His song was distinct and loud in the empty woods. A few steps further back toward the park and I saw another woodpecker fly across the path into a tree almost directly above me. The Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are very similar in appearance, and I worried that I would not be able to determine which of them I was seeing. While the Hairy has a much longer bill, it's difficult to use as a judge when you're not seeing both at the same time. Then, just before he flew out of sight, I put down the camera and pulled out my binoculars. He jumped from a horizontal branch to a portion of the tree's trunk and gave me a great view of his tail feathers. The outermost ones on a Downy Woodpecker have small black bars among the white, but these were completely white. I surmised that I had indeed seen the less common Hairy Woodpecker, and later zooming in on photos I'd captured of his head confirmed the absence of the Downy's conspicuous tuft on the bill. This had definitely been a successful birding trip!

In all I've got 23 species currently listed, and I saw and confirmed all but 2 of them yesterday. I added the Belted Kingfisher and the Red-shouldered Hawk to the list because I see them very frequently and I'll almost certainly be able to add them this week anyway. That puts me over 15% of the way to my goal of 150 species, but with most of the easy ones already identified my pace will certainly slow from here. I'd be thrilled to get to 30 by my birthday next Tuesday (subtle reminder).

01 January 2008

Happy New Year!

Good morning and Happy New Year to everyone! May 2008 bring you health, happiness and the wisdom to know what to do in hard times. As I've said, one of my goals for 2008 is to do a Big Year list of birds I observe. Lily and I are going out this morning to get started on this list. That's partly because Mandi's working until 7 and needs us out of the house so she can sleep, and also because the gym is closed. But I really do want to get a good winter time list to help reach my goal of 150 for the year, so today promises to be a fun day in that regard.

With regard to the blog, I have set a few soft goals for 2008 that I should tell y'all about. I plan to dedicate one post per week going forward to cooking and recipes. We've made at least 10 new recipes since my last post about them, but since Mandi broke the printer I've been procrastinating getting them into the computer. But it's a new year and my focus will be better, so look for new recipes on the site around Thursday or Friday of each week. I also plan to reorganize the list so that new items are highlighted and they're grouped together by categories, rather than just listed on a page. That should make it easier if you're looking to try something new.

In light of the Big Year, I'll do one post per week about birds (at least). I'd say this will be typically a Sunday or Monday post, as the weekends are usually best for me to get out and do some looking. As usual, I'll try to include a good photo or two with all of the posts.

So I hope your black-eyed peas and collard greens were tasty yesterday, and that you set reasonable expectations for yourself with your resolutions. Nothing takes the wind out of your sails more than realizing you set a goal you'd never be able to achieve. Remember the old saying "How do you eat an elephant?"

"One bite at a time."