Sunday, April 2, 2017

2016, A GREAT Year for Life Birds, Part 1

[I'm more than a bit behind in my posting! Here's where I finally catch up on all my bird posts that should've been made in 2016 but weren't.]

As of the first week of February 2016, I already added 7 new birds to my life list -- as many as I added in all of 2015.

The last Saturday in January, I finally saw a Common Merganser on the Central Park Reservoir. It was definitely bigger than the more usual Red-breasted Mergansers,

On the last Sunday in January, we enjoyed an Audubon Society Eco-cruise of New York Harbor. It was a picture-perfect day of bright sunshine, blue skies, calm water, near 50 degrees. The 2-hour cruise took us past the shores of Brooklyn, Governor's Island, Ellis Island, Liberty Island and Bayonne, and down to Hoffman and Swinburne Islands, two small man-made islands on the eastern shore of Staten Island. There are ducks out there, ducks and loons and gulls that don't come inland to the Central Park Reservoir and only occasionally visit the East River or Hudson River for easy viewing.

Clangula hyemalis. Accept no substitutes.

Lots and lots of gulls and cormorants all over the place.
Familiar Herring Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, Greater Black-backed Gulls, Double-crested Cormorants, Mallards, Black Ducks, Buffleheads and Red-breasted Mergansers were abundant along the shores. Spotting the unfamiliar Bonaparte's Gulls and Common Loons was the challenge!

There are seals too! Harbor seals like to sun themselves on the rocks and sandbars around Swinburne Island. They tend to hit the water when the boats come close, and stared at us from the waves.

So freaking cute.
So on one cruise I got Long-tailed Ducks, Common Goldeneye, Great Cormorant, Bonaparte's Gull, Red-throated Loon, and this Surf Scoter that was an unexpected bonus bird:

That is totally a Surf Scoter. Yay!
It hardly bothered me that my erstwhile spouse had already seen several of these birds elsewhere around New York City waters. I'm just not as eager to go chasing a critter that might have flown off by the time I got there. I figure I'll get them eventually...and often do.

In mid-February we went to Florida, with intentions of birding at Laxahatchie 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 and wood storks gazing into his living room windows while the indoor cats lose their minds. Well, it was all true.

That's in the next post.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Why I HATE the current crop of Republicans

Some leading Republican politicians think poor people still aren't poor enough. Hence their redoubled efforts to take yet more money away from the mass majority of Americans, and fork it over to insurance company CEOs instead. Never mind that actual human beings -- including children -- will go hungry, or suffer pain and hardship because of untreated illness, or end up sleeping in their cars because they can't pay rent. Here's a lovely list  by John Scalzi, of so many of the effects of poverty on a person. (And here is a followup post he made, too.) 
My family didn't have much money when I was a kid; we lived with my grandparents and aunt and uncle, we made do until I was in 3rd grade. When I was 5 I didn't know that my supermarket meltdown over a box of heavily advertised cereal -- that I then refused to eat -- meant we did without other things that week. I didn't know why we bought bread at the Silvercup day-old store instead of across the street at the supermarket. I didn't know fabric and thread for homemade clothes were cheaper than store-bought clothes. I thought shopping in bargain odd lot stores was fun, not just necessary. Things got much better after my dad got a new job. When he got very sick -- twice -- and needed hospitalizations, operations and lengthy recuperation, the union he belonged to made sure we had health coverage, and made sure his job was still there once he recovered.
And, I didn't know how many of those poverty habits were left over from my father living through the Depression, or my mother surviving as a teenager in a Displaced Persons camp after World War II. They never took good times for granted. Ever.
I become absolutely ENRAGED when smug Republican shitgibbons try to suggest poor people are just stupid, or unworthy, or a lower class of animal. Poverty can happen to anyone because bad shit can happen to anyone. 
Yes, I'm one of the privileged now: we don't have to choose between a smartphone bill and a grocery bill, we have health insurance, renters' insurance and we have retirement funds. But not a lot of things have to go wrong for us to upend us. And I have too many friends who truly live on the edge of disaster, through no faults of their own, to ever feel comfortable enough to not worry about growing old in a society being overrun by these hypocritical shitgibbons who lack sympathy, empathy and humanity.
There's a lot of poor-shaming going on. A lot of well-off people think poverty is somehow a "choice" or that poor people aren't being inventive or aren't "thinking positive" or praying hard enough or whatever shit they use to excuse their own lack of caring about other people. There are people who think they are Christians who go to megachurches and pray very loudly, but don't actually pay attention to anything Jesus or his disciples were quoted as saying. These "prosperity gospel" fatheads aren't Christian. They belong to a much older type of religion in which the gods were sometimes kind and sometimes cruel without reason, much like the view of god in the Book of Job. They're basically pagans with a Biblical veneer. 
I'm not a Christian either, so I can wholeheartedly say, without fear of burning in hell, that I hope those smug smiles get wiped off their faces by Fate someday. I hope they end up dumpster diving for their next meal someday. I hope they have to buy an interview outfit at Goodwill. I hope they feel desperate someday. I hope they learn humanity. 

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Knitting up Gradient Shawls

Knitwhits Freia Lace Ombre Yarn "Flare"

I don't know how this yarn is created, but I had to have it. I'd seen similar yarns on Etsy and Ravelry, like Kauni, and was determined to someday get some. Before I could hit the PayPal button, though, I ended up at Vogue Knitting Live 2013 in NYC, and THERE IT WAS.

Knitwhits Freia. OMG. A whole booth of amazing color. I bought lots. Well, I bought 7 skeins, at any rate. More would be overwhelming.

Shawl, I thought. Has to be a shawl. Something simple, because I would mostly be staring bewitched at the color shifts, not the lace design. So I picked a nice rhythmic pattern called Garden of Allah, free on Ravelry. The yarn was a dream to knit with: strong light lace yarn, quick to work on Addi turbos. And I made this. And I love it.

So in 2014 I went back to VK Live and bought more of this yarn. And since then I've made three more shawls from Knitwhits gradients.

Above: Light and Up Shawl, in Lichen colorway (which matches THREE outfits I own):
Below: Summer Sea Shawl, in Dusk colorway:

I really like the construction of this shawl, not just its geometry: the central spine increase of an otherwise conventional triangular top-down shawl is made with a double yarn-over, making a set of extra-large holes down the center. 

There are a few more gradients in the stash, from different sources, and a few more nice simple shawl patterns that will strike a nice balance between "simple enjoyable design" and "whoa nice colors!" So, more to come...

Vintage SF: I Have Another Tumblr

It's odd living with so many books I still haven't read. Inheriting my father-in-law's huge collection of vintage SF books was an astonishing but mostly overwhelming privilege. Years later we're still working our way through the treasure trove. Some books are easy to deal with, depending on age, condition and rarity: given to friends, given away at an SF convention or to a thrift store, or sold online. There are a terrible lot of keepers, though, books I always meant to read and now here they are, in my own house, for free, no limits! And worse, there are books I never knew I wanted to read but here they are, in my own house, instead of lying on an easy-to-ignore dealer's room table...

Anyway, I've decided to put the many many MANY books we still have into a Tumblr blog all their own. I've lately been on a decluttering kick, and so have once again begun to sort the unsorted and get rid of a bunch of these lovely old SF books. Some are not rare, just old, and are headed for either the local library bookstore, a local thrift store, or the freebie table at Readercon. Others may yet find their way to a vintage paperback dealer.

It's extremely satisfying to open up some shelf space for newer books. Much as I still love the older generations of SF and fantasy, I love a whole lot of the new stuff too.

Friday, March 11, 2016

I Have a Tumblr

Ha, even old ladies like me can eventually figure out stuff like Tumblr! IT CAN BE DONE. Laugh all you want, kids, just not on my lawn!

And so now Tales of the Magpie Prince is a Tumblr thing, and I will update it fairly frequently with musical, magical and folklore asides that add some background to the story: stuff about magpies, British blues music, seventh sons, counting rhymes, totem animals, potions, and other things I encountered in the course of my research.

I knew in elementary school that I wanted to be a writer someday. I wrote a bunch of Star Trek fiction in high school and college. That was how I discovered that RESEARCH is like the best habit to develop in school for being a writer. Good thing I was good at it.

Also, and this is important, if the research isn't engaging and absorbing and totally fun to do, then DON'T WRITE THE STORY. I discovered this when years ago trying some sci-fi world building for a (terrible) story idea I had. There are now books on how to do this, but I went about calculating planetary orbits and climates and food and animals and putting a whole world together...and didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I thought I would starting out. The parts I enjoyed most were inventing food plants, recipes and clothing styles for my aliens. Never stuck with it anyhow, but I suppose I could still salvage that story with an emphasis on cookery...

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015, a Good Year for Life Birds

Well, I didn't have nearly the exciting birding year that some people did, but it was quite satisfying nonetheless. I didn't spend as much time twitching in Central Park in 2015 as in the past few years. Partly that was due to a torn hamstring/torn ligament combo that spanned Thanksgiving 2014/January 2015, and caused me to spend the first half of 2015 limping about with a cane and extreme caution. While walking was part of therapy -- along with many, many leg lifts and stretches -- the uneven ground in the park was uncomfortable at first. So it wasn't until late in spring migration that I really got out and about again.

Once the leg was mostly fully healed, hiking up and down the hills of the North Woods and the Ramble became positively therapeutic besides enjoyable. And handling the binoculars and camera was much easier without the cane needing attention. I didn't see a lot of spring migration but did have a few really good days, shared with Ed and with other friends. No life birds, though, at first. And there wasn't much to see in the summer except for the usual suspects, so I didn't make much effort to follow Ed on his weekend bird hikes again until the fall migration began.

There were opportunities away from the city. Our annual summer trip to the Catskills got Ed several life birds over the past few years, and this year I got one too: I finally saw a whole field full of Bobolinks! There were many pairs breeding in an uncut hayfield just one driveway past our friends' farmhouse -- twittering their odd song, flying up to the surrounding power lines perhaps to distract predators, perhaps just to keep an eye on the territory.

My photo, not Ed's
I was feeling kind of lazy to visit Central Park until migration began, when some really cool birds began moving through. In mid October, an injured Sora was spotted in the North Woods. Ed saw it several times, and I finally saw it too not long before it disappeared. This is one of Ed's photos of it, as I had stupidly forgotten to recharge my spare camera battery and therefore was unable to shoot the darn thing myself. Not that it was visible for very long when I was there.

Ed's photo, not mine
We also had a few really good October days seeing warblers, kinglets and woodpeckers -- there were a dozen Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in the elm trees between the Pineatum and the Reservoir one afternoon -- but nothing else really new. Then in early November reports began of a Great Horned Owl in the Ramble, I'd missed the previous bird in 2012, I wasn't going to miss this one! So I was there the second weekend he/she was hanging out. I was well rewarded with a gorgeous autumn day, and the sight of a GHO's extremely fluffy butt, seen from below.

My photo, on a really windy day the owl did not enjoy
There was also an extremely lost and scruffy Western Flycatcher (which doesn't exist, as the taxonomy splitters claim that species is actually 2 different species THAT LOOK THE SAME) hanging around near the Boathouse, and we were happy to bring friends to see it same day as the Owl. Alas, the flycatcher soon disappeared from the park. We fear it met a sad end.

Then in December a Painted Bunting appeared in Prospect Park, and there's no good excuse for that bird to be in Brooklyn. It became quite the celebrity. We HAD to see it, despite my birder friend in Ft. Lauderdale noting he had a dozen of those a day at his backyard feeders. As I grew up living a block away from Prospect Park, I was especially pleased to return to the site of my earliest birding adventures. The Bunting was gorgeous. It glowed, as if it were painted with fluid from blue, red and neon green glowsticks. It also wasn't hard to find, as there were nearly 100 other birders tracking it.
I didn't get excellent photos of it, but Ed decided to return the next day and got lucky.

He's right there in the middle. 
As we walked from the skating rink to the Zoo, along the eastern shore of the Lake, we spotted a few ducks. One of them turned out to be a female American Widgeon -- and that was my sixth life bird for the year! If I'd only gone with Ed back to the park, I'd have gotten a seventh -- a Black-headed Gull has also been hanging out in the Lake, but I've been entirely too lazy to nab that sighting. Wouldn't be the first time. Or the last.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Roasting Vegetables the RIGHT Way, MY Way

All the cookbooks and cooking shows are wrong. All the nice trendy little packages of "vegetables for roasting" in the gourmet markets are misleading. You can't just fling a raw vegetable into the oven and expect gourmet delights on a weeknight. I've tried and tried.

As much as I love baked potatoes and roasted sweet potatoes, I know they take an hour no matter what--proper technique requires a deep center cut and a couple of cross-cuts, a bit of oil rubbed on the skin, and a piece of foil to keep the oil from dripping--and plan accordingly. I tried so many times to make cut-up roasted potatoes in a pan, but even with generous glugs of oil they just wouldn't cook properly. So I tried boiling them first, remembering the fantastic roasted potatoes with bacon my mom used to make. Success!

So what you SHOULD do, is trim and chop the vegetables, put them in a pan of cold water, and bring them to a boil for about five minutes--the outside should just be softening but the insides should still be firm. Then dump them in your roasting pan, add a few good swirls of olive oil, plenty of salt and pepper, and whatever herb or spice flavors you fancy. Heating the roasting pan with some chopped bacon in the bottom for ten minutes will add more flavor. A wide, shallow pan is best for crisper results. Too much oil makes a soggy mess in the bottom of the pan.

Purple carrots, sweet potatoes, turnips, etc.
You might nestle seasoned pork chops, chicken legs or breasts, giant shrimp or other animal protein delights among the vegs. Don't forget to toss well. Put in a nice hot oven, anywhere from 350 to 400 degrees (depending on the accompanying protein) for about twenty to thirty minutes, depending on degree of browning preferred. Toss and stir once or twice. Done!

My favorites for this technique include white/purple turnips, rutabagas, parsnips, orange sweet potatoes, white Asian sweet potatoes, cauliflower, celery root, carrots, yellow or pink beets, russet or purple potatoes, and Brussels sprouts. Radishes are good but a little bland. Pre-roasted or frozen chestnuts are excellent to toss in the pan. Onions, butternut squash, and fennel slices do NOT need any precooking, nor do sliced apples or Bosc pears.

Brussels sprouts, Yukon gold potatoes, parsnips, butternut squash
Seasonings are a lot of fun with so many bland, starchy veggies involved. I like herbal blends like Herbs de Provence, or Fines Herbes plus extra thyme. Seasoning should be STRONG. Recently I used some Penzeys Spices Turkish seasoning (salt, garlic, cumin, black pepper, oregano, sweet paprika, sumac, cayenne red pepper and cilantro) for parsnips, turnips and sweet potatoes, and added a few tablespoons of maple syrup too. Of course, using grated cheese transforms the dish into something more like a gratin.

Chickpeas are a great addition too.