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.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Habenaria rhodochila, Superstar

I love love love love love terrestrial orchids. I've been growing several kinds for many years now. While it seems silly to "waste" precious indoor light garden space on plants that vanish entirely for half the year, it's not much sillier than growing other species that bloom sparingly. And for that half year underground, they're no trouble at all!

My pink Habenaria rhodochila has been very happy for the past six years, but I've never been thrilled by the flowers. They're wimpy. The color isn't bad, but the shape is blah -- too open, compared to others I've seen And no matter how close to the lights I put the developing new shoots each year, the plants end up stretched out. But it still blooms like crazy! And this year, the ever-growing tuber put up a whopping seven new growths, five of which bloomed! I really can't help but love the darn thing, even if those flowers only last a week. A WEEK. Well, having five spikes stretched the flowering period to about a month. But really.

Being nevertheless eager to expand my collection, I was happy to win a tiny plant of the orange form of the species at auction. It came from my friend Ron Midgett at New Earth Orchids, who has excellent taste in Habenarias. I figured it was a good bet the flowers  would be decent, but didn't expect any until 2016.

Surprise! The tiny plant grew and grew over the summer, and soon put up a spike with several buds. It took a long time for those buds to develop. Good? Bad? Neither? The stem is really straight, really sturdy. Then the buds started to open...

This plant's flowers aren't wimpy. They're amazing. And they've been open over two weeks already. I took the plant to work in a cereal box wrapped in plastic bags, then on an express bus for a trip to the Greater NY Orchid Society show table, and wow, not one sign of wilting yet. I hope they make it to the Manhattan Orchid Society show table next week!

Everyone wants to see it next year, when the plant is bigger. I just hope like all hell I don't somehow manage to kill it this winter...I'll be VERY careful once it settles in for its seasonal nap.

ADDENDUM: The flowers ended up lasting FIVE WEEKS. The plant is now (very early January) thinking about going dormant.

Knitting up Bugga!: Green Dragonfly Fern Hat

I'm a certified sucker for cool yarn names and cool pattern names.

Want to sell me armloads of yarn? Slap a name on it like Flamboyant Cuttlefish or Golden Tortoise Beetle or Amber Trinket, and I'll happily fill my shopping cart to overflowing.

"Oh I just love that yarn in colorway 342!" just doesn't have the same pizzazz as "That scarf will look great in Malabrigo Mechita "Mandragora!" I quite understand that most huge yarn companies are reluctant to worry about color names when they change them every year. But still.

Want me to buy your pattern? Call it Parseltongue Hat, Iron Maiden, Sea Dragon Shawl or Hypernova Shawl. I often feel disappointed by the relatively colorless names given to patterns in the knitting magazines--or worse, when the project is named for the color of the yarn they picked, not some unique attribute of the design. An indie designer on Ravelry of course has to market harder than Vogue Knitting; a great name becomes an insider byword. Say "what a gorgeous Leftie!" or "I can't wait to finally cast on a Honey Cowl!" and a whole lot of folks in the yarn store will chime in.

So, "Fern Hat" isn't an exciting name, but the hat does look very ferny, so that's OK. At least the yarn is called Green Darner Dragonfly. I tried so hard to use that skein sooner, as it was one of the first things I ever bought from now-sadly-defunct Cephalopod Yarns. I really wanted to use it for a shawl pattern called Dragonfly -- so appropriate, right? -- but alas the yarn was a bit too fat for a delicate lacy design.

And I still have Gather Ye Rosebuds Hat, Butterfly Sunset Beret, Song of the Sea cowl and Vitamin D cardigan in my pattern queue. So I'm good.