Saturday, January 9, 2016

Brambling Ramble

As a general rule, birders get excited about birds that are hopelessly lost, er... I mean out of range.

Take the Brambling, for example.  Native to Europe and Asia, this tiny finch occasionally makes its way to North America, believe it or not. Where?  You never know.  Sure, they have bred in Alaska (once) but that was considered a rare occurrence.  With records scattered all across North America, there is simply no telling where it may show up.  

So, when one was found a short hop outside of Cleveland a few days after Christmas, I was certainly watching the bird reports as I hoped to go see it.  I had never seen one before.

In the early morning hours of January 4, Natalie and I took off. 

Even though Michigan had experienced warmer than average temps for the winter thus far courtesy of "El- Meano", we found ourselves driving through lake-effect snow squalls to get to the known location. 

By 10:30 or so, Natalie and I arrived at the farmhouse outside of Medina, Ohio.  To our surprise, no one was there.  I figure most chasers had chased it. Plus, on a Monday, folks likely were at work.  With traffic concerns at zero, we conveniently parked by the house and waited.....

...about three minutes....

Natalie quickly shouted "I have it!"  I was on it moments later.


Now keep in mind,  the Canon 7D partnered with a f5.6 100-400mm internally stabilized lens with L-series glass does many great things. One, it sounds cool on a blog read by less than a dozen people.  Two, it fails to photograph a smaller-than-a-soupcan songbird at 30 yards (I would argue most cameras will on cloudy, crappy days).  So, if you grief me on the photos, well, too bad.  If you are really hankering for a nice photo, this Brambling photo is nice.  So is this one. And this one.  

Needless to say, given the precarious parking situation (a blind hill for a road with a 50mph speed limit) and the snow squalls, we opted to press on with less than 5 minutes of viewing.  This was, by the way, my 245th Ohio bird as well as my 669th life bird.   Mission accomplished.  

With the target bird in the bag, the rest of the day was ours to go play.  A quick stop at the Cuyahoga Valley National Park visitor center (yes, folks, Cleveland has a National Park) gave us a refreshed lay of the land as Natalie and I had been there before. By that point, it was basically lunch time. A quick stop at the Winking Lizard in Peninsula made for the perfect meal.  

A nearby walk noted for winter birding was not particularly exciting.  With that, we opted to pay a visit to some previously visited locations.  

Blue Hens Falls is an easy hike from the car and shows, in its simplest form, how a waterfall might form.  Water, flowing over a given substrate (in this case, sandstone), chips away at the weaker rock layers beneath (in this case,shale). 

The photograph loses scale a bit but the falls are about 15 feet tall. I would have loved to scramble down there (something I have done in the past) but I was concerned with the snow cover and my less than ideal boots.  Given the overall lack of color in this winter landscape, I thought a black-and-white photo conversion might be nice.  

A short bit later, Natalie and I found ourselves at Brandywine Falls.  While certainly beautiful, it was also once viewed as a source of energy. Remains of early mills are still present on site.  At 60 feet tall, it is considered a true gem in the region. 

After an aborted effort to secure Little Gull and Black-headed Gull at the Cleveland waterfront at sunset, we opted to move along to dinner at what has certainly become one our favorite places for chow: the Great Lakes Brewing Company.  

Started in the 1980s, its always nice to have a great beer at a place that contributed to the wave that is now the Craft Beer Movement.  Even more to the point, they take environmental issues seriously.  The tomatoes on the pizza were grown up the street. Literally.  The spent grains are passed off to farmers just outside of town. Great beer. Great food. Environmental ethic. A trifecta, if you ask me.

To make the evening even more nice, the building is older than the hills. The basement, where we ate, has old stone foundations and beams that are enough to make a historic preservationist drool. Dim but solid with a great atmosphere, this place is a must on anybody's "Where to eat in Cleveland" list.

Better yet (if that is possible), they had a band playing on the stage. Okay, the stage was basically a large step and they were two dudes with acoustic guitars, but they were really good. I'm mean really good. I'll have to postpone my own guitar phenom world tour. They were even sporting the Bob-Dylan-harmonica-on-the-neck thing.  To top all that off, the guy's name is Thor.  Way cool. What a great way to wrap up the evening.

The drive home was, as you would expect, a drag.  They always are, right? But, the day was as they should be be - great birds, fine beer, old buildings, nice scenery - all with my wife.  

What more you could you want?

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Quill's Bridge

December 21, 2015 was a very sad day for Natalie and I.  Our big, fat buddy, Quill, had to be put down.  

Quill's origins are a bit mysterious.  Our best guess it that he was a Siberian Forest Cat.  Tipping the scales at 16 pounds (he was once 18 pounds!),  he lived to the ripe old age of 15 years.  In fact, he may have been 16 years old.  We are not sure as Natalie acquired him from her piano teacher when he was five....or six....years old. We can't be sure.

We can be sure he was simply an extraordinary cat.  I know, I know, I know...everybody wants to say that their pet was the best one, but they're all lying. Quill was the best.  Anybody who met him was immediately captivated by his girth and his personality - both quite large.  Calm, affectionate, and simply awesome, he really was the best cat anybody could ask for.  That's a fact.  Snuggles were constant, his quirks were numerous, affection was a given, and his purrs were like gold.

Interestingly, he was not in perfect health.  About eight years ago, he was diagnosed as  a diabetic.  Now, I know some folks would have put him down right then and there thinking that diabetes in cats is somehow a horrible thing.


Like diabetes in people, it is a very treatable condition.  A good diet and a simple regimen of insulin is all it takes.  

Well, not too long ago, he started to develop some kidney troubles. That can be addressed with diet, as well.  So we did it. Easy.  

All in all, I would argue that we took care of Quill better than most people take care of themselves.  

Sadly, despite our best efforts as cat parents, something diabolical was brewing in his noggin. This past Monday, two separate veterinarians diagnosed him with some sort of brain issue.  Tumor?  Lesion?  We'll never know.  The neurological impact was pronounced and frustratingly quick. His decline was over just a few days.  Further, something had changed in his body preventing his system from maintaining safe blood sugar levels. Despite the constant influxes of sugar, the levels stayed dangerously low.   

By Monday afternoon, arrangements had been made.  Quill was euthanized here in our home on Monday afternoon.  Natalie was holding him and I was holding her.  Needless to say, the whole situation was awful, but at the same time, it was comforting as we know Quill was no longer suffering from his brain condition.  

In fact, I would argue his last moments with us were, in an odd sort of way, grand.  

As a diabetic, high blood sugars would be a problem.  Sugary treats for him were out of the question.  Before I passed him to Natalie for the last time, he was literally swaddled like an infant and I held him like one.  The way he licked honey from my fingers is a memory this sappy cat-dad will have forever. The way he used his paw to pull my fingers closer  when I had shredded cheese bits made everybody present chuckle. His one last round of obnoxiously loud purring was wonderful because we knew he was comfortable.  

Popular culture now has a story regarding a rainbow bridge.  I honestly had never heard of it until friends expressed their condolences to us.   The general angle of the story is this: when pets die, they cross a rainbow bridge where they frolic and enjoy themselves in grassy fields on sunny days.  Upon the death of their owner, they meet again and continue on as companions it should be....

I'm sorry, but I have a problem with that story.

Rainbows are simply white light separated by a prism into its individual colors.  

You can't walk on a rainbow.  

But what if the bridge was made of cheese. Not just any cheese - sharp cheddar.  Natalie and I never had to sweep the cheese off the floor after a cooking session as Quill was always on the prowl.  

And what if, for a decorative flair inspired by the work of masons, his little treats were placed on the cheese bridge in a pattern called a Flemish bond.  Oh, and they're not just stuck there. They are mortared in place with his wet food.  Oh, and the wet food is something super-yummy and not his kidney-healthy wet food. After all, in Quill's new place, his kidneys and pancreas are perfectly healthy.  

Of course, if you have a bridge, there is often a body of water below it. A river or a stream.  For Quill, it's a river of milk.  But, not just  any milk.  It's the milk that's left over in the cereal bowl. You know, the super sweet stuff.

I have trouble, too, buying into the grassy fields thing.  During his supervised short forays outside (he was an indoor cat) he always tried to eat the stuff but never seemed to figure out that it made him puke.  Natalie and I had to watch that he never chowed on it.  

Hmmmm...what would be more to his liking?

Concrete.  No, seriously.  Concrete.  One of his favorite things to do on a nice sunny day was to lay on the warm concrete of the front walk.  Without a care in the world and his eyes squinted in the bright sunshine, he seemed like he could lay there for hours.  

And what might we find in the middle of Quills' concrete?  A couch. You saw that coming, right?  Specifically, a brown woven love seat, just like the one Natalie and I have in our family room.  It was certainly one of his favorite spots for his naps.  Not normally the frolicker, I suspect he would just chill for hours on his couch.

If he is really cool about it (and he would be because he was that kind of cat), he would lie in the middle of the love seat. That way, Natalie could sit to his right and I to his it always was when we watched re-runs of the Big Bang Theory after dinner. 

I say "we", by the way, because it was the three of us together. Natalie, myself and Quill. Three peas in a pod. 

Thanks Quill.  You were the best cat.  If you find any grass growing in the cracks between the concrete, please don't eat it.  

(Special thanks go to Nat's mom for being a great part of Quill's time on Grosse Ile.  Thanks,  too, go to everybody who helped with Quill's cat sitting needs and his needs overall during the years - Nat's dad, my parents, and all the veterinarians and techs (Jess especially).  Thanks all....)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Detroit In Black and White

With Natalie working in Detroit, I enjoyed the opportunity to take her to work a few days ago.  My semester was largely done and I needed the day to enjoy myself.  With camera in hand, I opted to walk the town. I can't tell you how far I walked, but I enjoyed every minute of it. 

I'm not going to tell you where I was.  Maybe some you Michiganders/Detroiters can figure it out....

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Building A Mystery

A short distance north from Traverse City, Michigan sits the small hamlet of Greilickville (GRY-lick-ville).  To the tourists who flock the region during the summer months, it does not seem like anything more than a small extension of downtown Traverse.  During its heyday in the late 19th Century, businesses included a huge sawmill, tannery, brewery and brickyard.

Now, I suspect you think this post is going to be more blither about beer.  

Well, its not.  This mystery begins with the bricks... 

During my Historic Preservation and Tourism class this past spring, Natalie, Ken and I made the trip to Traverse City.  Lunch, however, was in Cadillac.  The Clam Lake Brewing Company comes highly recommended.   Both beer and pizza were quite good. But it was not the chow that grabbed my attention.

The photo above was taken inside the brewery.  A few things may catch your eye.  Notice the yellow bricks.  Yes, it is the same yellow from the State Hospital in Traverse City.   My last post highlighted some photos from the tunnel under the Hospital. In fact, bricks from all over the northwest corner of the Lower Peninsula were made in Greilickville.  

Inconsistencies of the brick making process would probably explain the reddish brick in the center of the picture.  If you look closely, there are varying shades of yellow, too.

The real mystery in the photo would have to be the serrated edges on only some of the bricks.  As Ken and I walked the building, we noticed a scattering of them everywhere.  

A few weeks ago, I was in Traverse again for another class. The class, Adaptive Use of Historic Structures, had us investigating old structures that had been given a new lease on life. 

While enjoying lunch with classmates at Trattoria Stella, in the basement of the old hospital, what do I see in the wall?

You might be thinking "Oh...the same bricks!" That makes perfect sense, right? 

But they're not.

Note how the serrations are not as deep.  In fact, as I examined the wall, a complete evolution was noted.  Some bricks, like the above photo, had just nicks while other bricks were even more serrated than the ones we noted in Cadillac. 

Now, lets look at this a bit deeper.  

Are the bricks defective?  No. If so, the makers or the masons would have discarded them.  Note, too, that the mortar is in the cuts showing clearly that the bricks were serrated before they were placed in the wall (as opposed to some sort of chipping after they were placed).

Conversely, are the bricks somehow better?  No.  If they were, why don't all brick have these edges?  Sometimes, folks just blunder into better and it catches on. That does not appear to be the case here. Superior?  No.

Are the bricks decorative?  19th century masons certainly did things that make modern masons drool.  The effort was tremendous and final product was jaw dropping.  Clearly, jaw-dropping was not the intention here as the bricks were scattered about the walls at both Clam Lake and Stella's rather haphazardly. They are not structural (beyond their basic function) or decorative.  

The only thing that makes sense at this point is that the edges are a function of the manufacturing.  Frustratingly, if you count the nicks, they are not uniform on individual bricks or among different bricks.  It seems to me if there was a flaw in manufacturing, the problems would be consistent, right? The effect is the same, but the numbers are not. Odd.

I pursued a few folks regarding these bricks.  A few folks in the Historic Preservation department were stumped.  Bob, a former co-worker, collects bricks.  Yeah, I'll say that again - he collects bricks. After all, there are people who collect just about everything, right?  Apparently his basement has a collection with hundreds of samples from dozens of brick makers across the country.   He was not sure of what to make of this situation either.

That said, he put the word out with his collecting network. He even did a small piece for their newsletter.  Perhaps they can turn something up.

In the meantime, I'll continue to poke around and see what I come up with...

There may be be mortar to this story.....