Sunday, May 13, 2018

2016: A Great Year for Life Birds, Part 3

It took far too long for us to discover Jamaica Bay. We finally went there one blustery but very sunny day in March, and of course added a life bird to my list. To OUR lists.But I failed to get any photos of the American Oystercatchers we saw.

The rest of the water birds we saw that day weren't anything new: Brant, Canada Goose, Black Duck, Mute Swan, Ring-billed and Herring Gull, Double-crested Cormorant. The land birds were similarly familiar late winter New Yorkers: Robin, Song Sparrow, Brown-headed Cowbird. A pair of Ospreys were making nookie on their nesting platform.

The unexpected were at least 50 Boat-tailed Grackles. They were a noisy lot. We hadn't realized they we'd see more of them in Brooklyn/Queens than we did in Florida a month earlier.

Ed returned to J Bay without me a couple of times, then we finally went there together with friends in the early summer. The Black Skimmers were breathtaking.

The East Pond treasures were, for me, a long line of Oystercatchers.

And this very concerned Swan:

So many lovely birds! The terns were in fine form, fluttering and plunging into the water. So many gulls, so many swallows. So many Yellow Warblers! But it would be a year before I returned.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Too Much Yarn, Part 2 -- A New Hope

Learning to RESIST yarn emporium emails and catalogs is actually therapeutic. The hoarding shows all claim that learning not to accumulate stuff requires repeated exposure to the things you normally can’t resist. They might be right! I’m really enjoying “shopping” my stash and not adding to it.

I mean, damn. Lookit that.
That said…a whole bunch of the yarn that I’m most eager to play with needs winding. A whole bunch. Four skeins just for WIPs (where I wound half the skeins and decided to wait to wind the rest). GAH. Winding is BORING. 
Everything needs winding.



What's worse than winding? FROGGING. Ripping apart something you worked on for possibly hours and days, because you completely failed to notice something was deeply wrong and just kept going. Because you really liked the yarn but got the gauge wrong. Because you really meant well to make a baby blanket but didn't have enough yarn and nothing else to do with it. Because halfway through you realized you were totally sick of making even one more chunky wool sweater you'd never wear. 

I recently frogged a hat I’d created in great enthusiasm, because a) kept screwing up the pattern, but mostly b) 100 stitches is way too big for my head even in fine sock yarn. How is it possible so many hat patterns use 100+ stitches for the headband?? I have a fairly average-sized head and that’s too much. So I cast on again with 80, the next size down, and I hope it will go better now.

Don't be fooled by the cute doggie button.
This stupid thing needs frogging too. It's big enough for the Jolly Green Giant.
Anyone want to ask him if he needs a blue hat?

If you catch it in time, though, and you have enough yarn, an overly large hat can become a nice cowl.

Nice cowl, even if it started out as a beret.
I had fun re-organizing the pattern stash and WIPs while prepping for a four-day trip during which I knitted for HOURS each day. Every year we go to our favorite science fiction/fantasy convention, Readercon, which is heavy on books. It’s like attending grad-level lit courses for 3 days, which really is fun if that's your idea of fun. All those panel discussions are full of people knitting, crocheting, needlepointing, spinning and embroidering. It’s fabulous. We also had 5 hours riding in the car each way, so I brought 4 projects (3 WIPs and 1 new) and ACTUALLY worked on all of them. Didn't FINISH any, but made lots of progress. 

Organizing the stash takes time, that might be spent knitting instead, but it's not a bad thing to play with the yarn and re-engage with why I bought it in the first place.

Except for all the freaking winding.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Catasetum Fever

I really like Catasetums. I really like most of the species and many of the hybrids. They've fascinated me since the days of my first Jones and Scully orchid catalogues back in 1984. The images of Cstm. Orchidglade made my mouth water. But it was years before I actually grew a Catasetum. I ended up with two that were smallish and, as a bonus, semi-reliable bloomers. I was happy for many years.

Clowesetum Raymond Lerner

Ctsm atratum (I still think)
But then Fred Clarke and Sunset Valley Orchids came on the scene, and I longed for more. I hesitated. Most of those hybrid plants eventually become HUGE, especially the Ctsm pileatum hybrids. I don't have overhead space for plants that get even a foot tall. I continued to hesitate. Then the ever-inventive Mr. Clarke decided to try breeding MINI Catasetums. Oh no. I got one. It bloomed! (It's not doing so great right now, but I have hopes for its revival.)

Ctsm Karen Armstrong (Susan Fuchs x denticulatum) is a building block hybrid for the new minis SVO is creating. And creating, and creating. There are a lot of new hybrids available, and some are kind of meh and others are really exciting.

This spring, SVO had a big sale on their unbloomed seedlings in 3-inch pots. So I went in on a group order with friends, and I somehow (hah) ended up with five new Catasetum plants. Well, actually 4, since I ended up with two of one cross. Group orders tend to include surprises, after all. Some sell-outs, some extras.
Ctsm. Double Down (Ctsm. Chuck Taylor 'Wow' x Ctsm. kleberianum 'SVO) (2)
Ctsm.(Ctsm. gladiatorium 'SVO 35' x Ctsm. barbatum 'SVO' HCC/AOS)
Fredclarkeara (Mo. Painted Desert 'SVO' HCC/AOS x Ctsm. Alexa 'Good One')
Fredclarkeara (Mo. Painted Desert 'SVO' HCC/AOS x Ctsm. Karen Armstrong 'SVO')

Here they are, fresh out of the box.
And already sprouting!
Most of these babies were already developing new roots on the new shoots. Because I am an indoor grower with lousy humidity levels, I began watering them right away. Older pseudobulbs should not shrivel as the new growth expands, and if you don't water them enough that will happen. The plants won't grow as heartily as they should.

The popular wisdom is to keep these sprouting plants dry so their roots will hungrily seek moisture and grow rapidly, while the sprout lives off the water stored in the older bulbs. A very humid atmosphere helps keep the plants going. But honestly, in their native deciduous forests, substantial amounts of morning dew often soak the plants at this stage so I say the hell with pop wisdom and just water the damn things. Especially since I popped them out of their pots to check root growth, and I saw no issues, just lots of nice healthy white roots.

I did wait just a tad too long to actually repot them, but they didn't seem to mind.

The old tiny pots were completely packed with roots by now, and so I just popped them into bigger pots and filled in with seedling mix. Once they go dormant and the roots die back, I'll clean them up and repot them properly. Probably.

The first one to spike and bloom was this (gladiatorium x barbatum):

It's got spots and a fringy lip from both parents, not quite best of both (which are very similar) but pretty nice. It's a great flower count for a first-bloom seedling!

Two other people also had this cross bloom first. So it's a great choice for even beginners with this group of hybrids! That same plant pictured now has a second spike filled with buds. I'm seriously thrilled with it.

I'm curious to see if the Fredclarkeara hybrids will wait to spike until they've dropped their foliage, the way Mormodes species usually do. (I won't have long to wait for two of them, since uh, they were fiercely attacked by spider mites and my battle waged didn't prevent premature leaf drop.) 

I'm happy to have these plants doing fairly well...this summer has been a bummer for my plants overall. Mostly my fault, not watering sufficiently even though I started out well feeding and misting. I'm trying to make amends and see what the rest of summer holds.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Too Much Yarn, Part 1

I overdid buying yarn last year. And the year before that, and before that. And at the beginning of this year. One night not long ago, I realized that I’d forgotten to enter a whole 2-gallon bag of yarns from late 2016 into my Ravelry stash. (I knew they existed, but not being on Rav they weren’t ready to be claimed by queued Rav projects.) I wasn’t a very good girl January, February and March of this year either…but I’ve been good ever since. I HAVE TO BE.

No regrets for these final skeins. None at all. 
Digging into more neglected parts of the stash in order to log them properly, I found myself seriously wondering WTH I was thinking on some occasions. Just 1 ball of Lion Brand Kool Wool?? I gave it away. (Along with a bunch of other odd skeins not worth combining with others in a project.)
One thing struck me very hard, as I was hunting for a couple of skeins for a new project.
All those storage bags and bins of yarn I have -- eight or nine, packed pretty full -- represented dreams and POTENTIAL when I bought that stuff. Potential new sweaters, new shawls and hats and scarves. SO many pretty things -- so many patterns! I locked myself into a yarn shop of my own desires. At my present best rate of usage -- about 12000 yards a year -- I’m set for the next ten or fifteen years of knitting. And I’m in my mid fifties.
Mild regrets for this stuff.
I'm sure I'll love the sweater I'll make 5 years from now. 
Giving away the excess yarn -- something I’ve been doing for years anyway -- is becoming an even bigger goal than just knitting it up as fast as possible. I give a few bags to a friend for charitable knitting every year, some to a women’s shelter. I sell some on Rav. I give some to friends who are down on their luck but love to knit. I'm keeping only what I really love. 
But even if I give away more things than I keep, there’s still only so many sweaters my spouse and I can wear or stuff into drawers. Only so many scarves and hats. Only so many throws to pile on the sofa. I surprised myself by giving away a shawl I spent weeks and weeks working on; I didn't love the colors once it was finished, but my friend had been admiring it so now it's hers. 
I like piling up small projects like hats, cowls, scarves, simple shawls and baby sweaters to give away. It’s entirely win-win. I get to enjoy the yarn for a while -- or not, as sometimes happens. I get to try another new pattern. I get near-instant gratification of a finished project. And I get that yarn out of the house entirely! So back in April, I decided to make a game out of my goal, similar to plowing through a book a week, to cut my To Read list down a bit each year. I decided to knit a hat or cowl every week for the rest of the year, in addition to the usual scarves and shawls that I work on while I commute. Depending on the gauge, it takes me 3-5 days to make one.

This one took 2 sessions watching TV.
To speed things up a bit, I organized the stash better, and made a bag of "ready-to-knit" skeins that don't need winding (thank you Big Yarn Companies) or I already wound. Imagine my joy when I dug into one bag and came up with a bunch of Deep Stash skeins I'd forgotten about, all set for hats and stuff! I’m capable of whiling away a whole evening browsing my pattern printouts and fondling bags of stash instead of actually, you know, KNITTING. But I hit a new realization, as I was digging in the bag of Ready To Knit skeins a little while ago.

Like, What the hell was I thinking?

Noro at its worst...
While it feels good to have rediscovered some yarn I once loved -- I quickly made a giveaway hat and planned a few others -- I have to curb that impulse a bit. Because my stash is vast and life is short, I need to -- I deserve to -- knit the yarns and patterns that I love the most first. Not just stuff that happens to be easiest to access because it’s sold in pull skeins. Good thing I already wound a bunch...

Friday, July 21, 2017

Pancakes for Dinner

There's nothing wrong with pancakes for dinner. You don't have to pretend they're crepes either. It's especially nice to have pancakes for dinner when the weather is hot and you're tired of eating salads.

Multi-grain pancake mix is a wonderful thing. I use Arrow Mills organic or Bob's Red Mill. Arrow has a grittier texture, probably due to more corn meal. I like both just fine.

I don't follow the package directions. I grew up eating my mom's very crepe-like pancakes made from scratch -- we never owned a single box of Bisquick or Aunt Jemima -- and so I know that proper ones include eggs as well as milk and oil. 

My recipe to make enough pancakes for two hungry adults plus leftovers for next day lunch or breakfast:

Beat 2 eggs, add 1/3 cup milk, a good splash of walnut oil. If you want a nice savory note, add either vanilla or almond extract, about a teaspoon.

Stir in at least 1 cup of the packaged mix. Here comes the tricky part! If you want thin cakes, which I never do, keep adding liquid until the texture is quite loose -- nearly as goopy as before you added the floury stuff. I like thicker cakes, because I like to add stuff into them, so I adjust liquid/mix to make a quite stiff batter.

Then I add the solid stuff we like. Verrrrrry thinly sliced bananas are excellent. Tiny wild blueberries, either fresh or frozen. Corn, either fresh or frozen, preferably white; grated corn will add more liquid to the batter, so make it extra-stiff if doing this. Theoretical additions: diced strawberries, chocolate chips, flaked coconut, anything not too chewy or crunchy. At least in my kitchen. Add at least 1 cup of solids, or you won't notice them. If adding corn? Really add corn. Lots of corn. Make these into corn fritters if you're going to add corn.

Butter or coconut oil are the only cooking fats I'll use for these, but do your thing your way. I like the butter just browned before I add the batter. Each cake should be about 2 tablespoons of batter, for ease of flipping and quickness of cooking. My 2 nonstick pans hold 5 and 6 cakes each, if I didn't goof up and make the batter too thin.

While side 1 is cooking, I can decide to sprinkle stuff on the uncooked side. Preferably sliced almonds, if there are bananas or berries in the mix. No need to toast them first, they'll toast nicely when you flip the cakes.

Is anything better than just butter and maple syrup for topping pancakes? Well, depends. For breakfast I'm happy with that, but for dinner I like more substance. Fruit is a wonderful thing. Whatever is in season and goes with the pancake theme works great. So berries with berries or bananas, or peaches with berries, whatever you like. Banana pancakes deserve some butterscotch sauce and clotted cream, Fosterizing them.

Corn pancakes/fritters go with pretty much anything, surprisingly. Last fall I mixed sauteed apples and fresh figs with butter and maple syrup. They were darned tasty. 

Sauteed apples with cinnamon & vanilla. Rum would be excellent too. 
Mascarpone is a wonderful, wonderful thing. It goes with everything. Everything, I tell you. 

Fresh strawberries and nectarines, in this case, over corn cakes.
I wanted pancakes but there wasn't much fresh fruit in the house last week. I did however have a pint of sour cherries I'd intended to pit and freeze. I thus discovered that cherry compote is a FABULOUS thing on corn and almond pancakes, especially with mascarpone.

And it's super easy to make, being essentially cherry pie filling. Pit cherries, put in small saucepan with a little water, 2 tsp cornstarch, 1/4 cup or so of sugar, and some almond extract. Simmer VERY gently until the cherries start to soften. Add more water if you added too much cornstarch. Add a little amaretto or, preferably, kirschwasser. Taste, add more sugar if needed. This is also a great topping for ice cream or cookies for desserts.

The nicest wine to enjoy with these pancake dinners is chilled Prosecco, dry and light and fruity and crisp. Vinho verde is good too. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Southern African Epiphytic Orchids, by John S. Ball

At one point I obsessed over collecting rare or unusual orchid books, aided and abetted by several friends who also delighted in used bookstore finds or eagerly and impatiently awaited new publications. Magpie, you know. I was so eager to expand my knowledge of ALL types of orchid I'd read pretty much anything. I honestly don't remember how this wonderful old book ended up in my collection, it might have been a gift or a lucky purchase.

Epiphytic Orchids of Southern Africa is a treasure. The paintings by Patricia van de Ruit are exceptional, made life-size for the oversize pages. The book was published in 1976 after Ball's death, from his detailed notes, and edited by his sister, Jane Browning, with the assistance of Peter Ashton.

The plants depicted include a number of species even now only rarely seen in cultivation in the US. Thanks to people like Fred Hillerman back in the 60s, 70s and 80s whole tribes of Angraecums, Aerangises and related genera were introduced to our collections, and my friends in New York in the 80s included several fanatics who had to have all the plants and all the books. Nowadays many of the species are somewhat easier to come by, and many are raised from seed. This book is still a great place to learn more about them.

I'd love to get his other posthumously published book Terrestrial African Orchids. To quote the blurb on, "The 128 orchids illustrated in this work were collected from the wild in many localities by the late John S. Ball, mainly during the early 1950s when he worked as a forester in the Melsetter area close to the Chimanimani Mountains in Zimbabwe. Many of the species from this area are recorded to the North in the Flora of Tropical East Africa floristic region and to the South in the Republic of South Africa, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal. In 1978 John Ball's work on epiphytic orchids from this region was published in the book Southern African Epiphytic Orchids. The present work is edited by Jane Browning (John Ball’s sister) assisted by Esmé Hennessy."

Ball was one of those obscure but vital people in science, Born in 1926 in Rhodesia, he was also a Rhodes scholar, and then returned to Africa to work in forestry. He died in a car accident in 1976. It's a pity he never got to see his books published and enjoyed.

Friday, July 7, 2017

2016: A GREAT Year for Life Birds, Part 2

Not a bird. My apologies.
In mid-February 2016 we went to Florida, with intentions of birding at Loxahatchie and Green Cay reserves near the Everglades. We visited a friend whose home is on the shore of a small lake and surrounded by a moat, and he likes to post photos of white ibis gazing into his living room windows while the indoor cats lose their minds. Well, it was all true.

Good times started with lunch at My Big Fat Greek Restaurant on Griffin Road, between Ft. Lauderdale and Boynton Beach. They have a friendly male Boat-tailed Grackle that likes to steal sugar packets from the outdoor patio tables, and enjoys snacks of fried calamari. Anhingas swim and fish in the canal alongside. I have seen both species before in previous trips to Florida, but never bothered to enter them on a life list before. Likewise the earnest Muscovy Ducks also enjoying the water, and the Cattle Egrets on every roadside greensward. Boom!

The word anhinga comes from the Brazilian Tupi language and means devil bird or snake bird.
Wikipedia says so.
Come morning, the White Ibises in the canal by the hotel, and in the parking lot, kind of put things in perspective. Big birds are just part of the suburban landscape in that part of Florida. If you look up you'll see Turkey Vultures, gulls, terns, egrets and herons drifting by. If you're lucky, you'll see a Double-crested Cormorant trying to perch on a power line like an enormous pigeon wearing swim fins. (I wish I had a picture of that.)

We only made it to Green Cay that weekend, with a couple of friends along to make the experience even more fun. One friend spends most of the winter in a nearby community and visits the place several times a week. She knew all the good places to keep one's eyes peeled, and helped spot two alligators. Another birding friend who lives in the region also kept pointing out good things. We really hit the jackpot there for new life birds. Best birdy afternoon ever!

First thing we saw gallinules, wood storks, egrets, herons and ibises. Like all at once, right near the nature center and boardwalk. Considering how much trouble we go through in New York to get good views of herons and egrets, it seemed almost unfair!

wood stork
Wood storks are clearly dinosaur throwbacks.
Purple Gallinules aren't common, like the Common Gallinule, but were among the first birds we saw there. Gray-headed Swamphens, an introduced species, were only seen further along the trek.

Purple gallinule

One is purple. One is common. One is neither.
Tricolored Herons were abundant. They seem to find the boardwalk railings a congenial place from which to watch humans pass by.

I walked right around this one. No reaction.
Little Blue Herons and Green Herons stalked about everywhere. I could only recall all the trouble I'd had seeing my first Green Heron in Central Park a few years earlier. Gah.

I had the completely mistaken impression that a Limpkin had to be an exotic and elusive creature.

It's not.
As a special treat, a normally elusive American Bittern was hanging out right alongside the boardwalk, basically right under our feet. It didn't seem to care how many camera lenses were pointed at it.
Not pretending to be reeds.
I also never expected to be thisclose to a Pied-billed Grebe. I can throw away all my long-distance shots from the Central Park Reservoir birds.

Mottled Ducks and Blue-winged Teals were the dominant waterfowl. Both were often found right around the boardwalk. Both are very nice to see up close.

Sleepy Mottled Ducks. Sleeeeeepy.
Plump, stately Teals.
White Ibis and Glossy Ibis are quite handsome birds. (I actually didn't realize Glossy Ibis also live in New York City, at Jamaica Bay, as part of their invasion force in the US.)


Roseate Spoonbills are among my favorite dino-birds. I've seen them quite close up in zoos, the better to appreciate their bony faces, but seeing them in the wild is quite another experience.

A farther-away experience, mostly.
Didn't get any good photos, but before the day was over I'd also added Caspian Tern, Royal Tern, Northern Harrier, Red-shouldered Hawk to my life list. 

There were also plenty of Coots, Lesser Scaups, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Brown-headed Cowbirds, White-winged Doves. Prairie Warblers and Palm Warblers and other species familiar from elsewhere. Also Painted Buntings in abundance at the bird feeders right at the entrance...just two months after we hunted one down in Brooklyn!

Also this Sora, more cooperative than expected. 
Green Cay is just a terrific place to BE, never mind spot birds. The boardwalks are comfortable (I could wish for a few more shaded gazebos but oh well). The nature center is well-organized and informative, and I love the tote bag I bought. The writer friend we were visiting was happy to learn of the place, as it's ten minutes from his house and gives him a great place to take exercise walks.

Green Cay is also a great place to see lots of bird butts.
We returned in January 2017. That's another post.