Monday, December 28, 2009


Greetings from the Great White North! "White" and "North" both apply, but "Great" is not such a good word if you are thinking birds.

I am currently holed up in Paradise, Michigan with some friends. We figured a late year trip for some boreal birds might be fun, right? Maybe some owls around the Soo and perhaps some boreal passerines near Whitefish Point?

After an early start from Metro Detroit (~5am), snow squalls from lake effect weather were a problem the whole way. While posted speeds are 70mph, we rarely got to 55mph. How did they do it in the old days? The bulk of the time (what little we had left) was spent at Hulbert Bog about on hour west of the Soo. Beyond that, we were just trying to manage the road with the winds and blowing snow.

We could count on two hands, if we had polydactyly, the number of bird species for the day - only 12. For the most part, there nothing of note. Some Canvasback and Scaup at the Straits below the Bridge, Ravens here and there, and a group of Chickadees at the Hulbert Bob who really needed a Boreal Chickadee as a companion. A Dove here, a small mystery falcon there. Not much. Really disappointing for the most part...with one notable exception. West of Paradise, feeding easily 20 feet up in a tree, sat a Ruffed Grouse.

Of course, any trip to the region would not be complete without a trip to Tahquamenon Falls. No, not the Falls, the Pub 33 Brewery at the Falls (we got there after dark). I was there on April 23, 2004 and knew they had to have had few new brews in the last 5 years. Sure, enough, they did! The Peach Wheat Ale (#688) and the Lumberjack Lager (#689) were both pretty good. The Peach was exactly what you would expect - peachy. The Lager had something going on there but we couldn't figure it out. But we did not let that stop us from liking it! I gave them a "3" and "4".

It is possible those people at the campground had been drinking at the Pub. What in the world would possess people to camp when temps are going to well belowing freezing and windchills are sub-zero is beyond me. But, to their credit, the Christmas tree in the campsite looked pretty cool!

Tomorrow? More time looking for those pesky passerines and then off to bungle around looking for owls. Perhaps I will check back in if I get the chance....

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Trifecta

For the eight of you that actually read this blog, you know I have varied interests. Among other things, I like history, I like to travel, and I like good coffee and coffee collectables. A few days ago, I scored something that meshes all three. eBay - what a wonderful thing!

If you are having trouble reading this memo (the original, by the way, is not 8 inches tall), here it is:

Menger Hotel
San Antonio Texas
If you have any mail for me, please forward to the above address and oblige.
John H. Hanley

Did you see the date? February 25, 1879. Notice, too, how the memo's ink fades as he writes. The date has that same degree of faintness, suggesting, to me anyhow, that he wrote the date after drafting the memo. As someone who clearly has writing that rivals that of a third grader, I was really happy to see how he goofed up his "R" in "respectively". Apparently, sloppy handwriting has been around at least since the latter part of the 19th century!

As you may recall, I have been to San Antonio. The Menger Hotel? Been there, done that. Remember? It is convienienlty parked right next to the Alamo. Jammed full of history, any place that has been around since 1859 and served people like Teddy Roosevelt, Gutzon Borglum, and Babe Ruth gets an "A" in my book!

So what is up with the Thomson and Taylor Spice Company? Well, everything and nothing at the same time. What was going on when Hanley wrote his memo in 1879? It apparently has origins dating back to 1865. A few people came and a few people went. Taylor and Thomson were in charge by 1872 (so they would have been Hanley's boss). By 1920, the name was adjusted after a fellow by the name of Warfield bought the controlling interests; it became known as the Thomson and Taylor Co.. I know the building that served as the main office still stands in Chicago. Apparently, they are trying to get tenants to move in and make it sort of an arts district. You can read about it here.

Unfortunatley, I can't seem to find much about what happened between 1920 and now! As far as I can gather, T&T became a division of the Warfield Company. At one point, they were making root beer extracts well into the 1930's, but I can't seem to find much more. Very frustrating. The Internet is supposed to be the solution to all my problems!

What wasn't frustrating was the cost. I almost broke the bank on this one. Including shipping, it almost cost 10 bucks....

Monday, December 21, 2009

I Love Home Improvements!

Every now and then, I get a bug. No, not an "illness" bug, but a bug to do home improvements. While some people would think that a desire to move forward with a do-it-yourself home improvement project is actually an illness of sorts, I think painting a room is manageable.


So, for purposes of this exercise that defines the idea of "hire a professional", it would help if you knew the layout of my bedroom. The accent wall would be the wall at the head of my bed. Wall #2 has two doors - a door to the bathroom and the main door. Wall #3 has the closet door (a walk-in) and is mostly, well, a wall. Wall #4 is mostly wall (imagine that!) with the one and only window.

The plan was to color the main wall a dark green with the 3 remaining walls a light green. Why green, you may ask? Everything else in the room is green (bedding), dark cherry (book shelves and night stand), light beige (carpet) or an old coppery green (ceiling fan, lamp, and bed frame). So, if you ask me, green tones to the walls would be a super look.

Hmmmm, now what green should I get? Have you been to Home Depot lately? Lowe's maybe? The available colors are enough to make you feel green while spending it, right? Colors include Asparagus, Mountain Forest, June Vision, Celery Sprig....oh, I could on and on. There are only dozens to choose from. Mind numbing, isn't it?

So what did I pick? Christopher's Robin's Swing. Now, before you roll your eyes and chuckle at my masculine bedroom with paint named after a child in a poem, understand a few things. First, it was a nice green. Really! Second, it was a free can of paint! Basically, a deal had been haggled with a friend - I get a gallon of paint for 10 minutes of my time setting up their computer printer. That color would be my accent wall. I just needed to find a lighter shade of green for the three remaining walls.

Now, I did preview the color on the wall at my friend's house, but admittedly, it was poorly lit. I had the card, saw the wall, and said "Yeah, this will do." After my trip to Home Depot, "Skipping Stones" got the nod for the other walls. Hey, they were on the same little card and looked okay together, all right? So, yes, technically this guy was painting his wall with Disney colors. But, get off me, okay? Would it have been better if I painted things "bile green", "duodenum green" or "bruise green"? Just shades of green, right? Shades of green. Names don't mean diddly.

Within a few hours, everything was taped up, and the first coat went on the accent wall. "Funny. I thought it was going to be more green... Oh, it still wet. But, hey, this looks great!" Coat number two goes on a bit later. Hmmmmm...still not quite as green as I thought it would be. Ahhh, its the light. The paint looks great!

The following day (this would have been Thursday), I started on walls #2, #3 and #4. The first coat went on just fine. At least, from what I could see. It turns out "Skipping Stones" is more like "We Skipped the Pigment". I could hardly tell where I had painted and where I didn't. All that time and effort and I can barely see anything? Hmmmm, I gotta do something. Back to Home Depot. Let's try "Dried Palm". By dinner, the first coat is on. By bedtime, the second coat is on. The tape comes off. Final clean-up should be set for Friday morning.

Friday morning comes. Who in the hell snuck into my room and re-painted everything? These colors? Nasty. That green on the three walls does NOT look right with the accent wall! Okay, I'm done trying to match colors. Forget it. Accent walls are great, but I must be color blind or something. I have enough of the Christopher Robin's Swing to finish the room. Wall #2. Done. Wall #3. Done. Wall #4. Arrggghhhhhhh! Not enough! Big deal. Back to Home Depot to get enough to finish the wall and therefore complete the room. (If you are keeping track, by the way, that would have been my 923rd trip to Home Depot since I began to conceptualize this project.)

New tray. New paint. On the wall it goes. Hmmmmmmm.......arghhhh!!! IT DOESN"T MATCH! The original can was totally wrong. Holding the new lid against the old lid, it is crystal clear now - all the color matching issues were rooted in two problems. One - the original can (the hand-me-down can) was botched when they (the store) mixed it. Two - I shouldn't be painting. What was supposed to be Christopher Robin's Swing was looking more like Winnie's Pooh. More of a brown-green than green. The picture at the left really shows the shocking contrast. The green line on the wall should perfectly match the wall itself. Not even close. (For the record, the color was fine. It really was. There was just no way to duplicate it....)

Okay, lets make the best of this. I have my color and now all four walls need to be painted. Work backwards from wall #4 to to #1. If I need to, get more paint to finish the job. Wall #4. All trim work done. Wall #3. All trim work done. Wall #2. Ditto. A few rolls go on to Wall #1. come the new paint that is going on Wall #1 doesn't look like Walls #2, #3 or #4? For that matter, why doesn't #3 look like #4 or #2 look like #3? New tray. New paint. Ohhhhhh, it was the old roller smothered with Winnie's Pooh! Ta-dah! I was mixing paint! Yaaaaaaayy!

Okay. Clear the head. Lower the blood pressure (Drum sets come in handy here. I can't believe I didn't shatter the thing). Think happy thoughts. New paint? New tray? New roller? Done. Commence rolling. A few hours later? Completion. Finally.

I think the picture at the left more or less shows what the final product looks like. A nice subtle green with a white ceiling. Total paint colors used? Four. Total gallons of paint? 149. Total length of blue painter's tape? 16 miles. Total time spent? About 3 days. Total cost of project? 1.8 million dollars.

I have lived here since 2004. This is my third DIY project. At this pace, I might do my next one sometime around 2011........

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Two Facts Of Life

Yesterday's road trip was a chance to learn two of life's important lessons. Read on.......

With a day off and and plans for the evening hours from home, it was decided to mosey our way west along Michigan Avenue. Someday, maybe, we can take it all the way to Chicago, but not today. Casual driving until dinner time. That was the plan.

Needing some munchies, we bumbled towards the dainty little "town" of Brooklyn. After turning north at Michigan International Speedway, my co-pilot spied a huge white bird sitting on a post. Given the lighting and my speed (not all influenced by the speedway, I'll have you know!), the first thought that crossed our minds this time of year was "Snowy Owl". After a double u-turn, we found ourselves not 50 yards from the bird. Immediately, we ruled out the owl. The head was too noticeable; a snowy owl head is rounded and seems like it is truly part of the body. While preposterously rare, a white Gyrfalcon needed to be considered. Our bird was big and certainly falcon/buteo in shape. (Hey! Cut me some slack! If undeserving kids can have sugar-plums dancing in their heads, we can dream about finding a white Gyr!)

Sure enough, the bird was patient enough for us to glass it and confirm it's identity: adult partial albino Red-tailed Hawk. Unfortunately, the camera gear was in the back seat. After grabbing it, getting the lens cap off, setting some dials, and swinging the camera into position (after an elapsed time of 27 years), the bird took off. Oh, hell no, he couldn't just fly when we stopped the car. No way. He had to wait for me to be a split second shy of "ready" and then take off. I managed a few shots as it flew, but as you would expect, it went the wrong way. Finally landing a few hundred yards out, I managed the shot you see here. Had the bird cooperated, I think I may have been able to get some pics comparable to this one from Belle Isle a few weeks back.

In case you are wondering why it is considered a partial albino with all that white present, it is simple - it must be completely white (no pigment anywhere). A bird with even one normal feather would be considered a partial albino. This bird had some red tail feathers as well as a scattering of colored primaries, secondaries, and coverts. Any way you look at it, it was an awesome sight!

By 4pm, we found ourselves in Marshall. While small, but huge compared to Brooklyn, the town is older than dirt. It was established in 1830. With an awesome, historic downtown jammed with cool art galleries and antique shops, we really did not do ourselves a service by allowing less than 90 minutes to look around. That said, I did find a dandy little coffee book published in 1932. Neat stuff. I could easily have dropped over 200 buckos on any number of cool antique mills, but that wasn't going to happen. That $325 coffee crate was so tempting, too.

At this point, I am sure you're wondering "Why in the world Marshall?" Did I really drive almost 2 hours to find a $3.50 coffee pamphlet? Of course not. What often beckons me? Yup, beer and friends.

The Dark Horse Brewery was a fine meeting to catch up with my friends Josh, and his wife, Kara. My first impression (of the place, not Josh and Kara!) was "small". The quarters were very tight and had the feel of a garage-turned-bar. The table that was a door helped to set that mood! Very cozy. Shame on the person who does not shower and comes to a place like this! All in all, it was actually very cool! Thousands of ceramic mugs (I mean it - thousands!) were hanging from every square inch of usable space. It was all a part of the beer club, apparently. No two mugs were the same. As we were told from a friend of Josh's who showed later, most of the mugs are made by some guy in the Upper Peninsula who has no electricity. How a guy in the U.P. becomes the go-to guy for ceramic mugs needed by a brewery less than one hour from Indiana is anybody's guess!

So how were the beers, you ask? Both were great. The Boffo Brown Ale (#684) was awesome. As someone who is getting a better appreciation of brown ales, I can tell you this one is tops. Carmelly (is there such a word?), smooth, and creamy, this scored a "5" hands down. The Too Cream Stout (#686) was every bit as good. Chocolaty , smooth like liquid silk , and with well balanced roasted tones, it was incredible. Having two great beers with another one of the basic food groups - pizza - made for a great meal. At least 10 other brews were available, but obviously, I couldn't try them all! With an alcohol level pushing the limits of aviation fuel, the "Plead the Fifth Imperial Stout" will have to wait. I do, however, have a four-pack of the "4 Elf Winter Ale" in the fridge. I'll keep you posted.

By the end of the evening, we confirmed a few important facts of life: Red-tailed Hawks are stunning regardless of colors but annoyingly uncooperative, and the Dark Horse Brewery is a must for anybody within a two-hour drive.

(Oh yeah, we also decided iPhones rule and Big Wheels are cool.)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


"River Wolf! I need a pick-up. Two Bumblebee Dippers in the decoys. Right side."

What a bizarre sentence, huh? Such was part of some radio chatter the day after Thanksgiving. Here is a little background....

Prior to the passing of International Migratory Bird Act of 1918, a sinkbox was a regular and accepted way to hunt waterfowl. What in the world is a sinkbox, you ask? Imagine a box large enough to accommodate one or two people. Take that box and place it in the water so the hunter is more or less below the surface. When he stands up, his shoulders, head, and shotgun are above the water. Panels lying at the water's surface like wings provide stability and a place to set a series of cast-iron decoys. By the time the Bird Act was passed, it was known that the sinkbox was too lethal. The ducks never saw the hunters. Post-1918, it became illegal to hunt waterfowl when the body of the hunter was below the surface of the water.

Enter the layout boat.

Combine, if you can, a coffin with a giant pumpkin seed. That's it. A coffin and a giant pumpkin seed. This "boat", upwards of 8 feet long, made of wood or fiberglass, will now have a very low profile and a place to accommodate a hunter (or two sitting shoulder to shoulder). Here is the catch - the bodies of the hunters will be above the the surface. Not by much, but they are.

There is no power on this boat, by the way. It is towed into place and anchored. You have to have a second boat, at least. Some use a third boat. Our rig? Three. The layout boat, the main boat, and pick-up boat (used to ferry the hunters between the other two and to pick up the ducks).

Oh wait. Now we have to trick the ducks into coming closer, right? That is where the decoys come in and their arrangement is key. In our case, we had seven lines maybe 75 feet long (I'm not sure). At each end? An anchor. So, if you throw it in the water, it is weighted at both ends, right? Evenly spaced across the line are 10 or eleven decoys attached to the main line by a shorter segment of line. Set perpendicular to the wind, five main lines are placed in front of the boat with the other two lines behind the boat. The boat is set so that the length of the boat is parallel to the wind. Got all that?

I think the pic on the left pulls it all together (I took it last year, but that is not the point!). Mid-frame? That is the layout boat. While this is a two-person boat, you can have a one-person boat, too. See the low profile of the boat? Now imagine the two hunters are on their backs. Gone. You won't see them. The ducks won't either. The two-person craft is, well, cozy. In the distant right portion of the image you can see two boats - the main boat and pick-up boat.

Ultimately, it comes together like this. The ducks, looking for a place to feed, see the decoys and think "Hey, they have some chow! I want some, too!" Not concerned about the boat, they come into the decoys from downwind. By landing into the wind (just like planes on a aircraft carrier), they have better control of their speed and lift and can land more smoothly. With the hunter's head propped up over the combing of the boat, the ducks "out front" are clearly seen as they make the final approach. Just before they land, they drop their legs. That's the signal. If they are in range (within the distant-most line of decoys), you sit up, aim, and fire.

All in all, the day went very well. Current regs allow for six total birds per person. I shot my six. Five Buffleheads and a Redhead. The best chances I had with the Buffleheads (historically known as Bumblebee Dippers) involved them slowing down to land or taking off (at one point, I had birds landing in the decoy spread!). In both cases, air speed was minimal. During flybys, the groups would pass low over the decoys, as if to investigate the situation. Their petite size and speed combine for the ultimate illusion and make them look like they are flying even faster than the published speed of 60 mph. Not quite the speed of light, but certainly too fast for this guy...

The layout boat and the main boat are in communication with radios. Apparently, no one uses their own name over the airwaves and no one picks their own handle. "River Wolf "was running the show. Normally, "Magnum", his son, is on hand too, but he was hunting in Ohio. "Decoy Slayer" was in for the day, while "Buckshot" was there for part the afternoon. My name? I was happy it was not "Moron", "Dufous", or "Asshat". Sure, I like beer, but mixing a beer call sign with hunting would be hugely stupid and no joking matter.

Good ducks. Good friends. Good times. The weather and temps cooperated (it was a bit windy, but manageable) and the home-baked pumpkin pie, courtesy of my mom, made for some good nibbles while waiting out in the main boat. All things considered, it was a great day.

Birdman out.