Monday, February 20, 2012


Beer drinking can certainly be enjoyable but I don't think I realized all of the dangers that are involved!

Addendum - Yes, some of you may have noticed that I swapped out the bomb photo. Those things might happen when I don't pay attention to photos I snitch from the internet. I still stop "clownin' " around, I promise....

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Isaac And the Crossbills

A few days ago, a post on a birding listserv I subscribe to mentioned a new initiative by the National Parks Conservation Association.  Called "Birding The Battlefields", it is an effort to get more people in tune with our Civil War past while pursuing birds.  

Admittedly, I was a bit disappointed that more birders on the list didn't jump on and say "How cool!"  So, trying to motivate folks to do something I have been doing for years, I wrote the following and posted it for all to read....

 I'm not trying to stroke my ego here, but I have been birding Civil War battlefields and other historic sites for years so I'm  looking forward to seeing how this program pans out.

From a logistics standpoint, know that battlefield birding is already a go. Auto tours, interpretive trails, interpretive centers, and bathrooms are all set.  There may not be birders on staff, but you can certainly get around with ease.  Lodging near most battlefields is easy to come by, as well.

Perhaps more importantly, unlike other interests people have that don't go well with birding (NASCAR,  for example), birding and "battlefielding" can go hand in hand.  It is easy to enjoy both.  Casual drives, longs walk and varied habitat can make for a productive birding day.  (Disclaimer - I am using NASCAR as joke here. Don't think I pay attention to it.  I would rather slit my wrists.  I'm just using it as an example. There are many more, I'm sure...)

Two things that really strike me as fascinating include the notion that you are seeing and hearing many of the same sights and sounds that soldiers would have heard or seen 150 years ago.  That Wood Thrush over hear or the Warbler over there. It's the closest thing to time travel, if you ask me.

In addition (without trying to sound all weepy-lovey-dovey on you), battlefields of the American Civil War were a experience most of us will never have to deal with.  Horrible as they were, they are an important part of our history and who we are today.  It is kind of pleasant to take real estate that is basically a hellhole and turn it into a rewarding day of birding and history.

I could go on with memorable bird sightings on battlefields over the years, but I'll spare you tales of Bluebirds nesting in cannons, Chuck-wills-widows calling at dusk at Bloody Pond (you might look that one up), or Kites over Palo Alto.  You'll just have to experience that yourself.

All in all, I think birding "historians", historians who "bird", or folks with a casual interest in both have a lot to learn from these places.

I encourage you all to consider it in the future.  I'll think you'll like it.
And so it went that, for the most part, my comment was entered into the archives of the listserv as a big nothin'.  I was hoping to get folks excited about something cool, and I failed. So be it.  Perhaps I should have mentioned something that will rile people up - liking shooting Mute Swans or something. 

Anyhow, yesterday's forecast was an apple compared to today's orange. Friday was to be nice with Old Man WInter, a fellow we have basically not seen since LAST winter, showing up early Saturday morning.  With both days off, I opted to do some running around on Friday.  Birding in near-zero windchills is not much fun.
No, it was not required running around. No errands or other important stuff.  I was just looking to get out for a bit.  My travels took me to Lenawee County for some birding.  A Snowy Owl (yes, another one!) was near Britton (a "blink and you miss it" town along M-50) and White-winged Crossbills were at a cemetery in Tecumseh.  After missing the Clinton Christmas Bird Count, I was looking forward to spending a bit of time there.

While the Snowy Owl was not at its last described location, it took just an extra 20 minutes or so to find it.  Apparently a stunning adult male (no speckles of any kind), it was sitting proud in a field about 200 yards off the road.  Sadly for me, it was facing the wrong way. The piercing yellow eyes are really quite something; I had spectacular views of the back of the his head through my spotting scope.
From there, I moseyed over to the cemetery for the Crossbills. Reports had them favoring hemlocks so it was worth it for me to concentrate on those tree species. It was also suggested to check the ground as they were known to feed on fallen cones.  
Within 15 minutes or so, I was enjoying their feeding antics 20 feet outside of my car window.  If you look closely, you'll see how the bill is actually crossed (like you and I would cross our fingers for good luck).  In short, this nifty adaptation allows them to plink the individual seeds from a pine cone.  Pretty cool.  Even more cool, if you ask me, is the fact that three out of four birds have the lower mandible crossing to the right. Yes folks, there are "righties" while others are "lefties".  
Anyhow, it has been a while since I have patiently watched birds for the sake of watching birds.  So, with my car turned off and my window down, I enjoyed the time watching them feed.  At one point, some were feeding inches from the base of a tombstone.

Did you read the stone? I sure did.  It appears that Isaac West is a Civil War Veteran. How odd, I thought, that not a few days before, I was telling people how cool it is to bird battlefields and here I sit in Tecumseh, Michigan watching little boreal wanderers feeding at the grave of a Civil War Veteran.  

Simple stone interpretation combined with a bit of internet snooping tells us a quite a bit about Isaac West.  

Dan McCook (age 27) was the leader of the 52nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. It was also known as McCook's Regiment (those regimental names are so witty, huh?). 11 Companies, totaling 1,109 men, took to the field. By August 25th, 1862 they had crossed into Kentucky.  A few weeks later (October 8, 1862), West and the others were involved in the slugfest now known as the Battle of Perryville

Confederate General Braxton Bragg had invaded Kentucky.  Union General Don Buell lost his attempt to halt the advance.  Interestingly, Bragg retreated back to Tennessee.  This is one of those peculiar episodes were both sides can claim a victory - the Confederacy won the engagement but their subsequent retreat gave the land back to the Union.  In military jargon, the Confederacy had a Tactical victory while the Union secured a Strategic victory.  Ultimately, Kentucky stayed in the Union, much to the relief of President Lincoln.

So were does this put Isaac West? Following the 52nd Ohio through the battle, West was in the thick of it.  Starting with the securing of Peters Hill at the onset of the engagement or advancing on Cleburne's units towards the end, West was a very lucky man.  Casualties (killed, injured, or missing) were in the order of 20% of the 38,000 men that fought here.  He apparently survived the battle uninjured.

Sadly, he wasn't lucky enough to fend off the illness that ultimately took his life.  The use of the word "Died" on the stone is telling.  It does not say "killed".  Sure enough, records show he "got sick and died".  Had he been injured, it would have said so (like it did for the others).  Who knows what it was.  Statistics clearly have more soldiers succumbing to illness than injury. During a time of limited medical knowledge, it could have been just about anything, including a simple infected cut.  

So there I sat in my car combining, once again, two interests of mine - birds and battlefields.  I'm sure the crossbills didn't care about the stories being told by the long dead soldier.  Perhaps, if we could ask him, maybe Isaac would be tickled at the thought of little red birds walking on his grave while popping seeds out of hemlock cones with peculiar little bills. 

I guess there are lots of things we won't know.  But there are some things I certainly do know.  Birds?  I won't stop watching them.  The Civil War?  I won't stop studying it.  Whether it is a tour on a huge battlefield or a simple marker in a small cemetery combined with twenty minutes of online research...

...I'm in. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Elephantiasis Pizzas - No More!

This past Sunday was quite a night.  I'm sure you know what was going on. It is the single largest event on television for the year - four hours of new commercials (interspersed with over-paid guys playing a game while their wives huff, fuss, and point fingers...).

Anyhow, I thought it would be fun to have some friends and family over for some munchies, gourmet pizzas, and beer.   

I did so knowing a few things.  The two dips were knock downs (food dips, not angry wives). Mexican Meat Dip?  I've made it before.  Easy and good.  Artichoke Hearts and Cheese Dip I have also made, but only once.  Once is enough to learn that it is a solid recipe and EASY to make.  Basically, shove the ingredients into a food processor and push buttons until it is a paste.  A third grader could do it.

Pizzas? Well, it's getting easier....

After the disaster of my Joseph Merrick Pizza crust, I realized my problem.  The ratio of water-to-flour was off AND I think I might have added a second pack yeast by accidentally botching the math.  Holy crap. Bad. That is like adding twice as much gunpowder to a shell just so you can have more power or doubling the temperature of your hot shower.  Doubling anything is not always good. 

With a new approach to the dough (in other words, I read the damned recipe correctly), I was heading in the right direction. A consult with a friend of mine (her dad owns a pizza place!) settled the final issues.  Before long, I found myself with three awesome doughs ready to go.  One went to the freezer.

The second became a re-make of the Garlic and Mushroom Pizza.  As I mentioned in the earlier post, stuffing the mushrooms was really not worth it.  "Chop 'em up and sprinkle the crumbs, parsley and garlic instead...." was the plan. Way good.

The Sam Adams Might Oak Ale (#1,171) is another PERFECT beer for such an earth-based pizza.   As you might expect, the oaky tones are found in there (no splinters), but I didn't really get 'em until the finish (which is certainly fine!).  I swear the hint of bananas could be detected in the aroma.  Little hints of vanilla were in there, too. Malts - don't forgot the earthy malts. Four out of five in my book! Beautiful to look at, too.

The second pizza is one for the books. Pears, Parmesan and Asiago cheeses (substitutes for more fancy stuff I could not get), fresh sage and a drizzle of honey.  Incredible. The overall sweet tones really make for a different twist to the time-honored pizza.  Who woulda thought pears would be great on a pizza? 

Sadly, while the pizza was excellent, I totally screwed the beer pairing.  Too many people don't take this seriously.  The meal should compliment the drink and vice versa.  Would you have a first-class steak and then wash in down with Gatorade?  How about tacos with milk?  Or Cheerios with beer?  (Wait.  Nevermind that last one. I know a guy who did that exact thing in high school!).  The list goes on and on. You get the point.  In this case, the sweet tones of the pear pizza totally and completely clashed with the Sam Adams Mighty Oak.  By themselves, both were excellent.  Together?  Ooops. I should have gone with a sweeter beer.  Lots of possibilities as I type this, but I think a Belgian or Trappist Ale would have been been worldly.

The dough issues are behind me. No, they won't all be perfect, but they won't be 2-inch think roof shingles, either.  Google "homemade pizza recipes" and you'll see what I'll be doing in the months to come....