Thursday, February 24, 2011

17 Years?

May 10, 1994.  A Tuesday.

My buddy Don and I had just finished birding Point Pelee.   A new bird for me that day included a Louisiana Waterthrush.   For most birders, after working the park, a drive through the Onion Fields before pressing on to Hillman Marsh is always in order. Shorebirds can be quite a draw there in May. Realistically, we were looking for anything. 

As we were winding our way north, a peculiar looking bird was on the side of the road. Honestly, I don't recall exactly where, but I believe it was sitting on a wire (as opposed to a shrub or tree). Something lay at its feet.  Sure enough, Don and I (okay, mostly Don) were able to secure the ID of both birds.  A Merlin was basically plucking a Horned Lark.  

Odd as it sounds, if the Horned Lark had lived but a few seconds longer, I could have made a statement that would ring true and funny forever - My life-bird Merlin was plucking my life-bird Horned Lark. 

Alas, the Merlin, with no patience for the two gawkers, took off down the road like a bullet, carrying the lark with ease.  Before too long, we had secured looks a numerous Horned Larks.  They (the living ones!) were  my life birds.  My notes from the time are very sketchy so I can't tell you what number they were, but rest assured, they were, indeed new.  Somewhere around #200 or so would be my best guess.

Any how, what brought about this little walk down memory lane?

Tuesday, I was out birding with a good friend.  We found ourselves in eastern Washtenaw County on Vreeland and Gotfredson Roads. Previous reports had shown Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs in the area.  Of course, in the winter months, where you have buntings and "Lappies", one may have Horned Larks, too.  

We certainly did.

If you are wondering about the name, they do indeed have "horns".  But, only the males.  This very cooperative bird appears to be a female. Thus, no horns. Check this photo to see the male's fancy head ornaments. 

After sweeping the road a few times, the one and only Snow Bunting was not putting on a show.  After sitting for a just a moment longer while we developed a game plan, guess who puts in an appearance?

Yeah. A Merlin.

Motoring across the field, it stopped in the tree line just a few yards from the road. While it was not carrying a Horned Lark, perhaps in a few seconds it would be.  With  a straight-as-a-laser flight style, getting from Point A to Point B never seems to take long.  Flight speeds in the order of Mach 3.9 (give or take) combined with their smaller size (26" wingspan) give them the appearance of moving even faster.  Small but nimble fliers, like a lark, had better be on their toes, or they're Merlin-meat.

After perhaps 30 seconds of gawking, off it went.  It did not seem to be in hunting mode.  I'm pretty sure I heard the larks breath a sigh of relief.

So, May 10, 2011 will be the 17th anniversary of 'ole Merlin-with-the-Lark story. Holy crap.  17 years.  In that time, I have been to quite a few places and seen quite a few things. 

I wonder what the next 17 years will be like?  Where will I go? What will I see?  If it turns out to be like the last 17 years, it will be blast, for sure........

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

I Don't Get It

I'm a guitar player. All things considered, I am better than most people. Yes, that is right - I am better than most people.  Knowing that most people don't play, I am better than they are. See how that works?

So, with the constant tutoring from my buddy Kevin, and tons of practice, I am now one step above "suck" and have graduated to "poor".   Now and then, I have flashes of brilliance and could be called "sub-standard".
For me, one way a musician can improve themselves is to learn songs. I know that sounds like a no-brainer, but chords and scales and such get old after a while.  Pick a song you know and like and play it. If you pull it off, you really can feel the excitement.  Confidence builds. Practice comes even easier.  Before you know it, you have booked a world tour.
So, I have found myself falling back to the music of my youth for inspiration. On the heels of winning the 2011 Grammy for Best Metal performance,   Iron Maiden comes to mind.  What songs in their 25+ year catalog can I manage? They are really quite good and I am really very not, so I have to think this through.  I have doodled with Revelations and Children of the Damned.  I'll get 'em.

One song that is a complete masterpiece is found on Powerslave.  Released in 1984, it features a classic - The Rime of Ancient Mariner.  At over 14 minutes long, it is based on the Coleridge poem of the same name.  It is simply awesome yet within the reach of a hack like me.  With just a few chords and some semi-intricate guitar work (forget the solos - I'll never manage)  I think I can do it.  With lots of practice.  Lots. (Check the song here.  Sit down. Relax and enjoy. Really. The creaking hip part in the middle is great. I can't wait to the do the rhythm guitar during the first solo on my electric guitar (I may get one soon. All acoustic so far). That thundering A Chord stepping down to an  F is gonna sound awesome. My neighbors may hate me.)

Well, I don't have the album anymore.  A quick trip to the music store and I should be able to find it. No.

Oh, fine.  What is this then?  The Essential Iron Maiden.  Ahhh, all the classics!  The good stuff on a 2-disc set.  Granted, with 15 albums since 1980, some good ones had to get cut. 
No Rime.  You have to be kidding me. That is not essential?  Who are they kidding?

Can someone please explain this to me? Would the Beatles release an "essential" album without Hey Jude?  Would Zepplin do one without Stairway to Heaven?  Would John Denver do one without Rocky Mountain High?  Would Britney Spears do one without "Oops...I did it again?  Oh  wait a minute. Scratch that last one.  She is not essential. At all.  All told, I could go on and on.  You get the point.  Unbelievable.

Oh well. Thank goodness for YouTube.

Up the Irons!

It'll Do......

Winter birding in Monroe and Wayne Counties can be fun.  With camera in hand, drive.  It is that simple.  Rough-legged Hawks have been out there.  Snow Buntings, too.   I'm gonna find a Snowy Owl, dammit. It has to happen for me some day.

Sunday, with time to kill, I went for a drive in the area.  It was not long before my buddy Don and I crossed paths.  Doing what birders and buddies do, we jumped into one car and shot off in search of whatever the roads had in mind for us. (Fortunately, we did not get stuck in a snow drift like that other poor sap.)

While pleasantly warm given the season and the winter so far,  it was quite windy.   A half dozen Kestrels were in the region.  I have to think one was my old friend from a few days back.  Easily five Roughlegs.

One bird was perching a wire.  Red-tailed Hawks so rarely do that, so we knew it had to be something a bit different. With the camera ready, I was prepared to begin my creep to its position.  A split second later, it bolted.  It wasn't me. It was the Bald Eagle that was moving at supersonic speeds across the field.  As the eagle moved on, the Roughleg opted to head back out across the field were the eagle had just been.  The angle took it right in front of the car.  

With the car door cracked open, I proceeded to track the bird knowing damn well the best  shot I was going to get was "an away shot" as it moved off into the distance.  I get a ton of those. There is a reason you don't see shots like that in the magazines. They suck.

Well, remember that wind? For whatever reason, the bird opted to slow forward progress, hover briefly,  and do a "wing over" to head back in the other direction.  Within a split second, it appeared to have lost both lift and momentum. With "landing gear" down, it floated on the wind for just a moment, as if in panic, before it moved on at lightning speed, clearly embarrassed with such  a poor flight demonstration.

The whole time, I had her in my sights.

Photographically speaking, the image is a bit "soft".  The tail especially so.  Checking things out after the fact, I realized that, while I had her in my sights, I did not have the "red dot" of the autofocus on her.  I missed her a bit so the image is not as crisp as one would think or want.

But I'll take it. It'll do.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

I'm Good

If your life is lame and you read this blog, you know I enjoy many things, including cooking.  With the ever-handy iPhone, "cookbooks" are literally at your fingertips. Try haulin' around your desktop computer. Yeah, not so easy, is it?

Jamie Oliver, that fellow from that TV show, has an iPhone app that I have used and commented on a number of times.  Quick meals are a snap with his recipes. Pastas, especially.

One on the cool things about the app is the opportunity to watch little videos about various aspects of cooking.  Little ditties on how to properly secure a cutting board, how to cut an onion, or trim out a vanilla bean are all to be had.  Pretty cool stuff.

One video was all about "Cooking Great Scrambled Eggs."  Now, nobody has EVER complained about my eggs, but I wanted to see what suggestions he had.  I took a few minutes the other day to watch the maestro.  

Crack 'em in a bowl and whisk 'em. A teenie pinch of salt is okay.  Some spices are optional (I use a dash of dill).  After you get the pan warmed over medium heat and the pat of butter is melted and bubbling, add a splash of olive oil, and throw in the eggs. Work that spatula, gang.  Slide across the bottom.  Scrap the sides.  Watch 'em, too.  "Keep 'em on the move" as he said.  Before you think they are ready, get 'em off the heat because they will still cook a bit. Texture is key. Overcook 'em and they get rubbery.  It really is that simple.  

Here is the cool part - I was already doing almost all of that.  The medium heat. Did it.  The spat.  Used it. The "they will still cook or you'll eat bathtub caulk" idea.  Knew it.  The only thing I was not doing was adding the dash of salt or olive oil.The thing I was doing that he didn't do was the addition of a splash of milk.

So, there you have it.  A world-class chef telling folks how to cook scrambled eggs yet I basically could have done the video myself.

Please excuse me while I stroke my ego....

Damn, folks, I'm good.  

Okay, back to my normal, non-arrogant, self.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Top Shelf Stuff

I am not really a giant liquor guy.  Occasionally,  I enjoy hot-buttered rums in the winter or the now-and-then whiskey sour.  Fogcutters are really nice, too, but I have  had them maybe twice in 20 years.  

Regardless, I understand the concept of "top shelf" liquors.  They are the higher quality names.  In vodka, for example, Grey Goose and Kettle One are top shelf brands.  As quality is related to cost, top shelf stuff tends to be more expensive, too.

Yesterday, time was spent tooling around the farm fields of Monroe County. With camera in hand, we were hoping to secure some shots of just about anything despite the gray skies.

I finally snagged a picture of a bird that I have been stalking for a few weeks now. 

Rough-legged Hawks spend perhaps half of the year on the arctic tundra. During that time, they finds mates and raise the kiddies.  They have tiny feet, so they can't manage big prey.    Lemmings and other small rodents are basically chow.  

As you can see, separating this bird from the Red-tailed Hawk should not be too hard.  They are a bit leaner, sure, but the patterns and colors are completely different.  Those dark patches on the wings (called carpal patches) combined with the large black belly are huge giveaways.  With a good look, I just don't think you could call this a Redtail. 

During the autumn migration, they travel as far south as they need to in order to get munchies.  They may head to southern Michigan in droves during one winter while the following winter may take them hundreds of miles further south.  The year following that? Who knows! Perhaps only a few make it to southern Michigan.   Each winter is a bit different.

I would make the argument that Rough-legged Hawks are a "top shelf" raptor. 

First, unlike Red-tailed Hawks who breed, migrate, and winter in the region, Roughlegs are in the region only half the year!  Basically, from October to April (or so). That's it.  Think of it as a quality thing - not all pubs have the same "top shelf" stuff. Some places have Gray Goose on hand. Some don't.  Roughlegs can be the same - some years, we have them, some  years we don't. 

Second, they are literally from the top shelf - the top of the world!  It is not just Canada and Alaska,  by the way.  With a distribution that science folks call circumpolar, they can also be found in the further reaches of the Northern Hemisphere, namely Europe and Asia.

So the next time you look at top shelf ingredients for your drink, you might think about looking for top shelf hawks on your commute. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Icky-Icky Pooh Part 2

So, if you read my last post, you know I had a problem with a brew. Infection. Ick. 

I contacted the brewer and had a response the following morning!  I had a few questions and we went back and forth a bit.  I was prepared to throw the whole email conversation up here for you to read but what is the point in that? 

Here is the gist of it - the seller should have pulled the pack because it was at least 6 months past prime.  Sorry.  Come to the brewery and I'll buy you a beer. 

Okay, cool......

....I think.

Can beer go bad? Yes.   Beers that are lower in alcohol  can go "flat" as the months tick past. That would be flat as in "loss or character", not carbonation.  The higher the alcohol level, the less likely it becomes.  High alcohol beers, like Belgian Dubbels or Imperial Stouts, for example, actually age like wine. 

Okay, fine. But the beer was not "flat", it was infected.  No mention of that issue at all. 

So, following the lead of Bob Woodward, I placed a flower pot on my balcony with a red flag in it.  My newspaper arrived this morning with a clock face scribbled on one page. Within minutes, I was having a conversation with my contact,  Deep Throat,  at the parking structure. 

He said that they (Tri-City Brewing) had, unfortunately, been dealing with infection issues since "day one".  While he  and friends have had a good beer or two there, Tri-City currently seems to be plagued with quality control trouble. His official suggestion was to avoid their products until they can get things under control, especially knowing that other great beers from other brewers are to be had.

Sound harsh? I can see how you might think that.  Truthfully, while Deep Throat and I are always good to chat beers and birds, he, more importantly, is a wise man amongst fools when it comes to beer.  If buying a six-pack from a brewer is such a crapshoot, I would just assume throw my money at another sample from another brewer who is simply not having trouble. I don't like raining on the parade of a craft brewer, but I don't want to dump money down the drain either. It is one thing to by a beer that does not taste as good as another, but it is certainly not acceptable to buy a bad beer.