Wednesday, July 6, 2016

My Excaliber

Apparently, historians are not sure what to make of King Arthur.  Did he exist?  Did he not? In short, people just aren't sure.  

We do know his sword, Excaliber, is a huge part of the Arthur legends.  It was said that he who could pull it from the stone would rule England. Other versions have a Victoria's Secret model tossing him the sword from a lake.  Ok, maybe not a model, but she is always drawn to be one.

I recently had my own Excaliber experience the other day.  

All thing considered, I have become more or less comfortable in the kitchen.  I am not stroking my ego, but I can manage.   Some of my more prized dishes over the years include Pan-seared Pilsner Sirloin Tips with Herbed Pecan Orzo and Shiitake-Blue Cheese Sauce, Feta and Lemon Pancakes with a fruit salad topping,  Goat Cheese-stuffed Turkey Burgers with Grilled Potato Skewers and a Curried Onion Dipping Sauce, Garlic-Hazelnut Chicken Breasts with Mustard Glaze,and Lager Steamed Thai Turkey and Shiitake Dumplings with a Pale Ale Sweet and Sour Dipping Sauce, and various pizzas with homemade dough.   Mind you, I don't make stuff up; I just follow the recipes.

So, for the Fourth of July holiday, I thought I would go out on a limb and try something I have never done.  


I hard boiled eggs. 

Now, I told a few people this fact and they looked at me like I had 10 eyes.  To them, it was simply impossible that a grown man who can somewhat cook has never hard boiled an egg. 

Sorry, its true.  (While dedicated readers may remember this blog entry stating the consumption of deviled eggs, I did not make them. My mom did.)

OK, great, but what did I do with them?

I made deviled eggs. 

For the Holiday season a few months back, I secured "Inside the Test Kitchen" by Tyler Florence. He and I go way back.  The book has some pretty neat shortcuts for the kitchen and puts tried and true kitchen lore to the test (hence the name). Great recipes are found throughout. 

After successfully hard-boiling the eggs (hell yeah!), the filling was whipped up using mayonnaise, creme fraiche, dijon mustard, lemon and salt.

Half of the eggs were topped with paprika and a dash of salt. Hardly anything original there, right?

The other half? 

Caviar and chives.

Utilizing my connections in the black market, I was able to secure servings from the Iranian Beluga fish.  I just happened to find $34,500 in the washing machine the other day and I thought fish eggs would be a great use for the cash. To hell with student loans, right?

Dinner was just Nat, myself and her dad.  With the eggs out as an appetizer,  Ken proceeded to eat 19 of the 24 eggs before I could say "Boo." Okay, not really.  He ate one before I could say "caviar" and promptly declared these eggs outstanding.

Natalie even liked them. Now remember, she has had an aversion to seafood and fishy stuff for quite some time. During our Maine trip, she experimented with clam chowder, lobster and scallops and liked them all. Now fish eggs?! Go figure. In fact, she suggested they were the best deviled eggs she ever had. 

Fortunately, the entire dish was saved by a product of the modern world though it was clearly influenced by Arthurian Legend.

A spork

My Excaliber.

Per the instructions on the jar, caviar is not to be handled by a metal utensil.  The metal imparts an icky metallic taste in what is literally nothing more than salty, squishy balls that squeeze out of a fish's butt by the thousands. Before the days of plastic, Mother-of-Pearl utensils were used.  Glass and porcelain, too.  

Without fancy stuff in our kitchen, I was struggling to find a way to dollop the caviar on each egg gently.  Pushed in the back of the utensil drawer, safely sealed in its original plastic wrapper, sat the spork.  

It was a triumphant moment. When the sword spork was removed the stone drawer, the orchestral music booming throughout the house was simply incredible. It was like John Williams himself was in the other room.  Fortunately, no sparks flew as they surely would have caught the kitchen on fire.

Interestingly, some say that metallic ions wrecking food on your palate is nonsense and the Mother-of-Pearl or glass spoon is a nod to snooty tradition.  Further, serving fancy fish eggs with plastic is akin to asking house guests to bring their own toilet paper. You just don't do it. It looks bad. 

In any case, I know this: I can't confirm or deny the existence of King Arthur, but I know Excaliber exists.  

Who would have thought it was plastic spork in my drawer?

(It should be noted that the caviar was actually bought at Meijer for $7.  Given the economics and environmental issues of sturgeon caviar, lumpfish is used now as a friendly alternative.  Shhhhhhh. Don't tell anybody. I want everyone to think I'm rich.)

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Bird Bling on the Beach

The Piping Plover is a not very big bird.  Smaller than a Cardinal and with colors the same shade as the sands they nest on, it would be easy for your average person to overlook them.  

Of course, any good birder knows you can find birds in their appropriate habitat.  In the case of the Piping Plover, just looking for the signs is a great place to start...

A few days back, Natalie and I split town. During our two-day road-trip, we had the opportunity to be official National Park Service volunteers.  Seriously. Official.   All we needed to do was to fill out official papers and "Voila", we're in!  We had it all.  Our own car, guns, badges and small helicopter were all at our disposal. We even had our own guide.

It helps when you wife's uncle is a Service employee.  Dan has been at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore for a few years now.  While a large part of his job is coordinating the investigations of miles of beach to collect dead birds for botulism studies, he can break away and tackle other projects. With him as our official team leader (in large part because Natalie and I had no idea what the hell we were doing), off we went.

In the event you have just been released from a Turkish prison, the Piping Plover is a critically endangered bird. This listing is not just for Michigan, but at the Federal level, as well.   Rough figures put this little bird at only between 50 and 60 nesting pairs in the entire Great Lakes area and less than 7,000 individuals worldwide. To the best of my knowledge, that number exceeds the number of Americans who think Dan Quayle would have been a good President in 2016, but I digress.....

With a need to monitor not just nests, but the individuals in various territories, banding is key.  Take this bird for example...

The official Fish and Wildlife Service band on the upper left leg does not help you identify the bird at a distance. In the hand, you have read the number, but so what, right?  All the birds look the same from 30 feet away. However, the combination of the reds and greens and their specific placement lets researchers identify individuals.  Green-over-red would not be the same bird as red-over-green.  Given the need to track these things, all birds are banded.  A non-banded bird on the Lake Michigan shoreline is a big deal.......

...which brings us to the highlight of our Plover foray.

An unbanded bird had been discovered.  Good old fashioned sleuthing on the part of the Park Service allowed researchers to find the nest in a most unexpected location.  Dan was able to show us this new spot with our official task being simply to determine whether or not the parents were still incubating. He swore us to secrecy as few people are aware of it.  But I don't care, I'll tell you.

It was under a cage.  No really.  In fact, they all nest under cages.  Well, lets back that up. The cage is added over the nest by staff after the nest has been located. It helps protect the incubating parents and youngsters from pesky predators like a Merlin.  As you might expect, the mesh on the cage is large enough for the plovers to come and go, but too small for most predators.

To further emphasize the secrecy of this location, Natalie and I had to visit the dentist.  A molar was removed only to be replaced with a fake tooth. Hidden in the tooth? A cyanide capsule.  We were instructed to flip open the fake dentistry with our tongue, extract the pill,  and bite down if we were taken hostage. The Park Service does not mess around. 

Fortunately, the weather cooperated.  The breezes from the lake were quite possibly life-saving.  The region would have been an oven.  Dunes and beaches act like concrete when it comes to heat.  Boy, that would have been rough. 

While the Plover, bad word....expedition was certainly fun, that was not the only part of weekend.  The sunset at Empire Beach was nice, but we dipped on the Green Flash.

The hike to Pyramid Point was breathtaking. That is North Manitou Island in the upper right corner.  We are hundreds of feet above Lake Michigan.  

In the event you are wondering, the presence of the sign cautioning patrons about the steep dunes and the two hours needed to return the bluff's top doesn't stop everybody.  Per Dan, there are more emergency rescues at Sleeping Bear than there are in the Grand Canyon.  People just don't take the place as seriously as they should.  

In any case, we knew enough to not run down the dunes (unlike the local WDIV reporter). It is just such a bad idea. Instead we opted to try our hand at canoeing the Crystal River. 

I can tell you it was amazing. The speed.  The rocks.  The whitewater.  The bodies and smashed canoes everywhere were intimidating but we knew we could handle it. Only our skills saved us from certain death.  

So, while we were gone for only two days, it really does seem like we stuffed a lot in there. It's amazing what a quick getaway can do for you.  

All positives aside, I have to plant my dig. Boone Docks in Glen Arbor. Nat and I had lunch there.  While the patio was nice., three beers, buffalo wings, and mushroom caps should not cost  1.9 million dollars.  Not worth it.  

We went back and showed our bill to the plovers.  Does he looked a little puzzled about those prices?

Yeah, we were, too. At least he has cool jewelry he could pawn to help pay the tab. 

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Box by the Bay

With apologies to Theodor Seuss Geisel

Walks in the spring, we look for birds,
Natalie and I, some say we're nerds. 
With boots on feet, and bins in the hand, 
Feathered things we seek, across the land.

A warm pleasant day, not so long ago,
In Ohio we were, were swamp trees grow.
A lodge, a beach, the park - Maumee Bay,
Bird here we did, at the end of the day.

On boardwalks of wood, slowly we paced,
This path through the trees, the past we traced.
We can say this, its sad, its even true
Birds on this walk, numerically few.

It really is a wonder, one might say,
Why this place can be vacant, when just up the way....
Crane Creek and their trail, with wonder and awe,
birds dripping from trees, bugs in their maw.

The walk to ourselves, for birds we stare.
Looking and listening, with patience, with care.
Not much here, a lesser birder might scowl,
Nat broke the silence - "Holy shit! An owl!

A box on a tree, not uncommon in the wood,
They're placed as a home, for animals they're good. 
The Wood Duck, they use them, gone natural holes, 
They work well on trees, on buildings, on poles. 

But its not just the duck, others may use,
Squirrels can perch here, raccoons may snooze. 
But this owl?  Seriously?  Living in a box? 
Yeah, you bet.  For the Eastern Screech, it rocks. 

The hole is perfect size, the box is as well,
Duplicating  a natural cavity, all is swell.
On a chilly spring day, bright sun can be great,
South facing hole, sun on his pate. 

I suspect one might say "Paul, your an ass...
....give the bird some space, have some class.
He's delicate and vulnerable, if he flushes, he's dead...
If he dies, your day is long, filled with dread..."

I say, the box - look, don't blame me.
Within feet of the boardwalk, it sits in the tree.
Reach it I can't, at arms length it is not, 
But, boy, is it close, what a chance I've got.

With my giant lens, the bird sitting there,
We did not speak, we used every care.
We soon moved on, further down the way,
The owl? It never moved, in the box to stay.


Not long after, let the record show,
The lodge was packed, birders on the go,
The Biggest Week in Birding, hundreds on site, 
The owl in the box, be found, he might?

Sure enough, I discover, found he was,
Seen by the masses, the conversation, the buzz.
The little red owl, in his box by the bay,
Bringing joy to many, on a chilly May day.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

I Just Like It

If you take a moment and troll around the Internet, photos are everywhere. Everybody has a camera nowadays be it a phone, a point-and-shoot, or a SLR.  

Going hand in hand with an image, one can often find a title.  Some titles are simply locations and dates.  For example, LEMP 5 28 2016 could be used.  That would be considered rather dry for a photo contest, though, huh? That would be more for personal cataloging.

Or, titles could be a bit narrative.  For example, as I type, Herbie, our cat, is napping on the window sill.  A photo of him could be titled "Nap Time", "Cat Nap", or what I am sure is an abundance of other possibilities. They could be serious, funny, punny, whimsical, or any other trait one can imagine.

So a few days ago, I was birding Lake Erie Metropark before work.  In previous days, I managed to score a Prothonotary Warbler and a Whip-poor-will. Both were new for my park checklist. It now stands at 255 species.

With a bit of birding luck apparently on my side, I hoped to secure a Connecticut Warbler, a late May migrant.  It would be new but it is not by accident that the bird is not checked off my list.  Simply, it is a very difficult bird to secure in Wayne County.  But so was the Whip-poor-will,right?

Anyhow, as I casually walked the trail, I was struck by the little maple tree leaf trying to make a go of it from the side of the tree...

A quick moment in Photoshop allowed me to turn the trunk black-and-white while the leaf stayed red.

Then it came time to name this blog post based on this image.  From a writing standpoint, where could I go?

Maybe I could mention some neat-o facts about the Red Maple. 

Maybe I could mention the oddity of it growing out of the trunk.

Maybe I could mention photosynthesis.  It's still taking place even if the leaf isn't green.

Then I realized...."Wow, I'm stuck..." I have no title. I have no blog theme.

I have no idea.

In the end, I decided I don't have to decide.  Rush has a lyric "If you choose no to decide, you still have made a choice."   The fact that their vocalist sings like a constipated mosquito is not the point here. The lyric is pretty neat.   

So there.  I won't pick a title.

I just like it.

Friday, May 27, 2016

His Vireo-wn Show

Birding along the shores of Northwest Ohio (just east of Toledo) can be some of the most rewarding birding in North America during the second week of May.  As gillions of birds move from their wintering grounds in the south to their breeding grounds in the north, they get stopped along the Great Lakes shore line.  Any woodlot has the potential for tremendous birding if the conditions are right as the birds take a break before crossing Lake Erie. 

A few days back, Natalie and I made a day of it as we often try to do.  One day at least, per spring, is in Ohio.   

The birding was everything birders would want.  Birds were everywhere.  It was not unusual to have multiple species in one tree or multiples of one species in the same tree.  Some were high. Some were low.  Attentions need to be everywhere.

Along the boardwalk at Crane Creek/Magee Marsh, one particular bird caught our attention.

Between Natalie and I, we have about 40 years of birding experience in over 45 states and four countries.  It was with zero hesitation that we called the correct identification on our little friend - Blue-headed Vireo (VEER-ee-oh). After all, it was only feet away.

The field marks are cake.  His head (or maybe her head?... sexes look the same) has a blue-gray cast.  It contrasts nicely with the peculiar green back, wings and flanks.  Those in turn contrast nicely with the white throat, breast, and upper belly.  The white rings around the eyes are so pronounced they are called "spectacles" in the field guides as a small white bar connects them over the base of the beak.  You can imagine Ben Franklin wearing such things, can't you?

It might be worth noting that when I first started birding in the early 1990's, this bird did not exist.  Well, it did....but it didn't....

At the time, ornithologists recognized the Solitary Vireo.  However, there were stark differences in the vireo if one looked at them across the continent.  Those along the west coast looked slightly different than those in the Rocky Mountains and even more different yet compared to those in the eastern United States/Canada.  

By 1997, the molecular data showed that this "single bird" was diverse enough to warrant a split. With the bang of the gavel from the American Ornithological Union, one species became three.  Cassin's Vireo, Plumbeous Vireo, and Blue-headed Vireo suddenly existed.  (It is worth noting that this is all science mumbo-jumbo. The birds certainly don't care.)

For the record, I have seen all three vireos. My Cassin's Vireo episode can be found here.

So, as Natalie and I watched our little guy at point-blank range, we really started to appreciate it.  Normally, this bird is much further or higher and a solid look is not always easy.  Thinking back, I can say this vireo provided what is very likely the best looks I have ever had at this species. Ever. Even his subtle chirps and clicks were audible. 

Even better, he was very predictable.  As  he moved along the boardwalk, he stayed low and progressed inches at a time.  Playing off of his behavior, I advanced down the boardwalk just a few feet ahead of him and waited.  I even had the branch in mind that I hoped he would land on based on his behavior. He was so cooperative.
But not just for us. 

As we casually walked the boardwalk with him, another birder approached us and asked what we were pondering.  (It is worth mentioning that this happens a lot in Ohio.  You don't have to look for birds - clots of birders can usually be an indication of a something noteworthy.)

"It's a Blue-headed Vireo. He's right there....." was our response.

"Oh yeah, the Blue-headed Vireo show. He's been here all day...."

So there you have it.  

A Blue-headed Vireo. All day in the same spot?

He was putting on his Vireo-wn show. 

All by himself.