Friday, October 30, 2009

Don't Mind Me, I'm Just A Magpie

BLACK-BILLED MAGPIES are ultra common in Colorado. They are as everywhere there as Sea Gulls or crows, to whom they are related, are on the east coast. Though they are protected in the United States, they are regarded by most Westerners as a nuisance bird. I couldn't get enough of them! Their sharply contrasting feathers are visually appealing and they are quite gregarious. They are also very interesting. A University Of Colorado scientist, Dr. Marc Bekoff maintains that Magpies hold funerals for their dead. He saw four magpies by a dead magpie and recounted: "One approached the corpse, gently pecked at it, just as an elephant would nose the carcass of another elephant, and stepped back. Another magpie did the same thing. Next, one of the magpies flew off, brought back some grass and laid it by the corpse. Another magpie did the same. Then all four stood vigil for a few seconds and one by one flew off." In the journal, Emotion, Space and Society , he says "We can't know what they were actually thinking or feeling, but reading their action there's no reason not to believe these birds were saying a magpie farewell to their friend." Indeed. Magpies are also the only known non-mammal to recognize itself in a mirror, so why couldn't they have emotions? They are highly intelligent, adaptive birds that eat anything and will turn things over to look for food underneath. Their resourceful omnivorousness is why some people think they are a pain. They will eat the eggs of other birds, tear open trash bags and rob dumpsters. I like to think of myself as a kind of magpie, a flashy dumpster diver of the writing kind. It would be fitting if when I'm reincarnated that I come back as a magpie.

The most well known magpies in the east are Heckle And Jeckle of cartoon fame.

I could not have said it better myself!

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LAST CALL - Chinese Lanterns and Pocket Watches

These seed pods, a common sight in fall, are known as Chinese Lanterns. They are native to Southeast Europe and Japan, but not to China. Their name comes from their resemblance to Chinese paper lanterns or Japanese lanterns. So, I ask you: why not Asian Lanterns?  They are also called Ground Cherry, Husk Tomato, Wintercherry or Jerusalem Cherry. I don't know if they grow in Israel, either! The seeds and leaves are highly poisonous. They are a  member of the Physalis or nightshade family, as are tomatoes, potatoes, and tomatillos. Inside the paper husk is a fleshy fruit which contains the seed. They do look and feel very much like tomatillos, but don't eat them! In spite of being poisonous, the plant has been used for a variety of medicinal purposes such as, as an anti-inflammatory, expectorant, cough suppressant, bed-wetting, malaria treatment and induction of early labor. I've noticed that when I look up the medicinal value of a plant they almost all were used for these maladies. I caution you to never plant them in your garden, lovely as they are this time of year. Plant them in someone else's garden if you have an ax to grind with them. They are very invasive. One little piece of the fleshy, underground rhizome will sprout a new plant. They will be there forever, impossible to eradicate. One of my sisters used to give pocket watches to the men in her life (and she had plenty). On the inside cover, she would inscribe a sweet sentiment with her name. She said that no man would ever get rid of a pocket watch, even if he dumped her. So, long after she was gone over the horizon, leaving a trail of dust, her gift watch would remain forever in the guy's life. It might be stuffed into a dresser drawer, but it would always be there. My sister died fifteen years ago, but I'm sure that out there somewhere, are pocket watches bearing her name. If a fellow gardener offers to give you Chinese Lantern plants, think pocket watches. These glowing lanterns were given to me by a friend whose garden I know well. I thanked her, but said "Good God! I hope these didn't come from your garden!" I didn't recall seeing them in her yard. "Oh no, I stole them from Ellen Masters garden," was her casual reply. I was shocked by this, but accepted the gift, rather like a pocket watch. Maybe these plants are truly more poisonous than previously thought!

Gruesome Golden Eagles

I shot, photographically, of course, these Golden Eagles on October 9th, 2009 in Colorado. I was off Route 50 south of Hotchkiss headed toward The Black Canyon Of The Gunnison. David and I were following my son whom we were were going to watch climb the walls of the canyon. We had driven many miles on a nameless dirt road toward some place only the inner climber's circles would have known. The eagles were scavenging a Mule deer carcass. When we went by them the first time, zooming along the dirt road agitating choking clouds of red dust, there were only two. I leaped from the car, shielding my camera as best as I could from the dust, shooting quickly as we were following another car and had no idea where we were. It would have been a tedious complexity had we become leaderless out there! The eagles were spooked and took off before I was able to get off many shots. I wasn't sure what I got for images as I raced ahead to catch up to our little convoy of cars. When we dropped my son and his girlfriend off to climb, they ran into two friends who were there for the same purpose. Introductions were made and gear collected. The group had to hike in to the start point of their climb which was going to take an hour or so. We would have time to kill before we could see the climbers ascending the rock walls. In the mean time, I could not get those eagles off my mind. They were the first Golden eagles I had ever seen. I was every bit as excited about that as my son and his friends were to climb. As soon as we got rid of them, I told David we had to go back to the eagles. Hours had passed by then, but I told David "Maybe they came back! That was a big carcass for them to ignore......." I was already patting my pants pocket for the car keys. He knew to resist was futile. And sure enough, when we got back to the field, which was seven miles back, there they were, not two, but three! This time, the Magpies had joined them.
Golden eagles are common in the Western half of the United States, but rare in our Eastern parts. So, the sighting was a big deal to me. I would have been thrilled to see just one, and here were three! I'm quite sure that at least two of them are sub-adults because of the white ankle socks and scattered white feathers. Also, when they took off, I could see white bums. Goldens do not acquire their definitive golden plumage until they are at least four years old. These eagles vary in size, the females being bigger than the males. Only Bald eagles and California Condors are bigger. Though not endangered, the Golden eagle is protected by the Bald Eagle And Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940 (see for the statute). So, think again if you were going to pull out some of those golden feathers to line your own nest! To mess with one is a felony which can result in a year in jail, $100,000 fine or both. These eagles are scavengers like other eagles. They frequent open grasslands like this site, partly because they like a good snack of Prairie Dog. They will hunt almost anything under the size of a Mule deer, though there have been reported attacks on adult deer. When we drove through this area, we saw easily 150 Mule deer. I did not realize it when I took the photos, but later on zooming in on the eagles, I could see in the distance a herd of Muleys in the background (see photo #2 beyond the irrigation wheels). When locked onto a prey target, they can fly at speeds of 150 miles per hour! The Golden eagle is hunted by Coyotes, Bobcats, and the usual big predators.                                                                                                                                                
Double click on this image for full screen and you can see the deer grazing in background.

The buffy-gold feathers of a mature Golden eagle are obvious on the nape of this handsome bird.

Gruesome! Double click to see the eye of the eagle on the left.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Day At The Office

  My son is the executive chef of SAM'S SMOKEHOUSE on Sam's Knob - Aspen, Snowmass. He took David and I on a tour of the facility when we first got to Aspen. The restaurant was closed for the season at the time, so we were able to tour freely and see the magnificent, commercial kitchen. He took us right away because he's very proud of what he does and where he works and also, within two days of the tour, it snowed enough to make it impassible by car! From now until spring, the only way to get to the restaurant is by ski lift or snow machine. Snowmass is one of the most famous ski resort destinations in the world at 12,500 feet elevation. A six person chair lift empties out an average of 3,000 thirsty, hungry skiers every hour, right into the front doors of the only restaurant on the mountain.
The Chef posing in his office and the trail map of Snowmass slopes outside of the restaurant

 Sam's Smokehouse, Aspen Snowmass, our rental Jeep between two snow guns. I took the photo from the chair lift                                                           
This newsletter is posted on the employee bulletin board. 'Our boy,' is proud of the organic menu selections and the 'green' philosophy of the restaurant.

A view from the restaurant

Inside the restaurant, closed when the photo was taken.

These are my guys! Hayden is in love with this smoker. Notice his flip flops and snow? Goofball!

This is a detail of Hayden's office. I think the cow head is so funny! He would tell you that his office is really the mountains, though - not this little room. David and I are so proud of him we could just squeal. Do I sound like I'm gushing? That's because I am. Wait until you see my upcoming posts about his rock climbing and paragliding escapades! After all, the restaurant business is how he makes money to buy rope.
 On the job when "the shop" is open for business

Monday, October 26, 2009

Lewis's Woodpecker

LEWIS'S WOODPECKER  was named for Merriweather Lewis whom you all probably remember from fifth grade social studies and 'Lewis' of Lewis and Clark fame. He surveyed much of the western part of the United States which was later bought as part of the Louisiana Purchase. This woodpecker was sitting atop a utility pole, drilling happily away for insects. The pole was next to a railroad track where I was walking as I waited for my son and husband to jump from a 7,650 foot cliff. Yes, you read that right. They were going paragliding (more on that later) while in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
I had never seen one of these birds before. In fact, I'd never even heard of them! They are a strictly western bird ranging from Canada into Mexico at the farthest ends of their range. With our common, Northern Flicker they share the feeding habit of hawking insects from the air while in flight. They are not endangered, but their habitats are dwindling because the areas they inhabit are being broken up by development into islands rather than a long, north to south corridors. They are quite large, about 10 inches long or tall, if you will. This one provided an effective diversion for me as I waited for my son and husband to leap to their possible deaths.
If you want to go really nuts and look up more information about them, try these links. Thanks to Wikipedia for the information I provided above.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

American Redstart

This is an American Redstart. It is either a first year bird, or a female. I participate in a Maine Audubon on-line list service. Members enter sightings of birds around the state to a web service which in turn, distributes the information to participants. Part of the objective is to give birders locations of rare or unusual birds in a timely fashion so that they can jump into their vehicles and go have looks for themselves. It's kind of a birders tornado chasing service. I have gone to see birds based on the information provided myself. I have also developed some fun and interesting friends this way. Most of these relationships are on-line only, but none the less richer. I learn a tremendous amount from reading the posts folks submit. One of the beauties of the posts is that it gives a reader a finger on the pulse of local birds. By paying attention to what birds are being seen on a daily basis, a reader can have a pretty good idea of what is around. Even the ordinary can be useful. Canada Geese, for example, are not around in the winter where there isn't open water. I've had January 1st sightings of Canada Geese because I live on the ocean in a cove that is shallow, but does not freeze (Oh please, don't let THIS be the year!).  I have also learned from reading the list serve posts that other geese that are rare often hang out with Canadas. So, when I see Canadas, I always look to see who's in the gaggle with them. I haven't seen anything unusual, but often people do. Lately, there have been rare Pink Footed Geese seen in Cumberland. Many people have come to Maine to see them based on the information provided on 'the list.' I have learned that some birds are not necessarily rare, but the time of year of a sighting can be very rare. This Redstart is a good example. I posted a question about it on the list serve and recieved all kinds of responses, many of them pointing out how rare it is to see them this late in the year here. Usually, they have all migrated. My identification of the species was confirmed by the list members, but not whether or not it was female or 1st year. Sometimes, it can be frustrating to a beginner like me when the most knowledgable people around, who are on 'the list,' disagree about an identification.
     At first, I found this urksome. Now, I'm sort of glad because that means that there is room at the table for a rookie. I have posted here a lot of shots of this bird for identification reasons, in case someone doesn't believe me, or wants to pick a fight. Birding people can be like that. At one point, there were three of these birds here all at once. These photos could be different birds, actually. They were very cute and spritely, hopping quickly from branch to branch and then dissappearing. This made it difficult to photograph them, even though I saw them frequently over a four day stretch. This is another reason I posted all of these shots. I am using these darling birds as pawns to pat myself on the back.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Aspen Lodgings, De'ah!

The first week of our 'Colorado Trip,' we stayed in Aspen with a family friend, who shall remain nameless for reasons of privacy. After all, not eveyone would want to admit to hosting David and I for that long! Ha! Our hostess could not have been warmer nor more gracious and we are deeply thankful to her. Her generosity granted us more time with my son (he stayed with us, too!) and an extraordinary place to stay. The home is situated on the side of what Aspenites call a 'hill.' In Maine we would call it a mountain. Shows what we know!  In Maine that hump would have the name of a governor or something. In Colorado it does not even get named at all. In the top photo, if you follow the winding road into about the middle of the frame, there is a gray-green, sage colored house. That's where we stayed with the following spectacular views of Aspen and Snowmass to the right. Snowmass village is tucked into the bottom left of the frame on the mountain landscape shots. If you double click on the photos, you'll get a full screen image where you can really see those details. Those mountains were what we woke up to every morning. The Aspen airport is near by and we watched small jets come in and out every night. They were fun to watch and had their own man-made beauty with the lights of the village at night. We could rarely hear them as the mountains seemed to soak up sound. We were frequently struck by the deep quiet. A Mule deer doe and two fawns were regular morning guests and peered into our windows, as if to ask "Are you from Maine?"
 Snowmass village to left, double click on image for full screen details
'Close-up' view

 Perhaps they were looking at me like that because I was naked. It was the first morning we were there and I was bumbling around in our bedroom trying to find stuff in luggage. If I had taken a bathrobe with me, that's what I would have been wearing when I took these shots, so I guess they qualify as 'Bathrobe Wildlife Photography,' my specialty. I suppose this begs the question "How is it that you could find your camera fast enough but not your underwear?" If you really have to ask, you wouldn't understand the answer.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


ASPENS are as beautiful as everyone told me that they would be. And what greater place to see them in their classic loveliness than in Aspen, Colorado? Magnificent swaths of ‘Colorado Gold’ spill into every valley offset by dark spruce and snow. The most wind sensitive broadleaf in the plant kingdom, they whisper, rustle and quake just as legend has it. The leaves begin to turn from green to shades of amber in September. By October, they are drifting through the air and piling on the ground like sparkling coins. The massive clonal colonies get their starts from single seedlings. The trees above the ground live 40-50 years, but the roots below live for thousands. Each tree is a clone of the rootstock below. For this reason, it's rare to see pink or orange Aspens in the natural world. In Utah, the Pando (‘Trembling Giant‘) Colony is believed to be 80,000 years old, the oldest known living organism on earth. Aspens are indicators of ancient woodlands; they are also climax trees. In forestry, this means the trees that naturally dominate after other trees have died off. Where avalanches plow down mammoth stands of spruce aspens take over. I almost climaxed myself seeing wave after wave of the divine trees. If I had gasped “WOW!” one more time, my jaw might have dislocated.

This is the best part of the road on Hagerman Pass which runs between Leadville and Basalt. It quickly turned to serious off-road ruts and dips. Thank God for the rental Jeep!

Every bend in the road where there was a creek revealed beaver activity. I've never seen so much beaver action in my life! They love the soft wood of the Aspens.

A rare stand of pink Aspens, photo taken on Hagerman Pass looking south 

A Cedar Waxwing in a field of gold

Monday, October 19, 2009

Lonely in Leadville

David and I just came back from two weeks in Colorado and Utah where we were visiting my son. He was a fantastic tour guide and showed us places that a casual tourist would never see. Leadville was one of those places. We flew to Denver and then drove to Aspen (where my son lives) by way of Independence Pass. Independence Pass is a grueling, white-knuckled drive if you don't like heights. The road is miles of treacherous switchbacks through the Elk Range of the Rocky Mountains. 'The Pass' crosses the Continental Divide and by Halloween is impassible due to snow. Aspen is at the west end, and Leadville at the east end. Aspen is a glamorous, moneyed ski town (I'll post more on the wonders of Aspen later). Leadville is a depressing, dying mining town. Each end of the economic spectrum lies at either end of Independence Pass. From Leadville, it's a grinding climb to Aspen. Mount Elber and Mount Massive loom over Leadville bearing down with clouds full of cold snow. Ironically, in the late 1800's, Leadville was the second largest city in Colorado. With a population around 30,000, it was the most famous silver mining, boom town in the world. Mining and some vague tourism are the current primary income sources. Zinc and lead are mined there now, and they  still call themselves a 'boom town.' Several times a year, the mining company blows up parts of the hillsides so that ore can be extracted from the rock rubble during the rest of the year. The days that the blasting takes place are celebrated as 'Boomdays' with a parade, street fair, burro race and motorcycle rodeo. I'm sure that what little china lines the walls of the ramshackle homes of Leadville, chatters and shakes along with old laddie's knees when the explosions commence. Sunday morning breakfast is served on the courthouse lawn. I would find that small consolation to the terrifying industrial thunder. The Boomdays are commemorated with boulders painted with the dates of the blasts and drilled with detonation holes. The population is down to about 2,000 now, though at 10,200 feet elevation, it's the highest incorporated city in the country. The dismal town has fake storefronts to look like old time saloons and cheap, modular homes with 4-wheelers and wrecked cars in the front yards and on the way out of town, a long row of dated, gaily painted rocks. When Doc Holiday, an early resident died and the silver went, so did Leadville's glamor. The mountains of Colorado are magnificent beyond imagination. But repeatedly, I was struck by how impossibly difficult it must have been for early settlers to live there. I could hear the sounds of grief still in the mountains. On the outskirts of Leadville, in the woods, is this peculiar 'Valley Of The Dolls.' My son stumbled on it a few years ago when he got out of his car to take a leak. It is on private property posted with a menacing "No Trespassing" sign. Next to the Baby Doll Ranch was this odd chair in the trees. Chilling and disturbing, this was not an outdoor art gallery nor was it the least bit public, though I did venture past the No Trespassing sign to take pictures. I jumped back into the car saying "Let's get out of here," while checking my photos on my camera. As we sped away, David asked, "Did you get good shots of it?" "Oh yes, I did," I answered. "And did I mention that was where I was kidnapped and held as a sex slave in an underground bunker for 18 years?"  That's how creepy it was. Maybe the dolls were company for a lonely person, outside of Leadville, in the woods, a person driven mad by the crushing mountains.  

Monday, October 5, 2009

As Common As Kale And Crows

When dining out, kale is often slapped onto an entree plate as a garnish. Restaurants use it because the leathery, blue leaves have a long shelf life. I've only ever known of one person to eat the uninspired garnish and that was my daughter. She would eat the kale from everyone's plate and then move on to the lemon wedges if available. She'd eat this stuff before even thinking about her entree. Her father and I often joked that we shouldn't bother to order a dinner for her but simply ask for a garnish plate. The purple stalks of growing kale are beautiful and can be delicious with a little bit of thought to the preparation. It is very high in fiber, vitamins K, C and calcium. Kale is regarded as a highly nutritious member of the cabbage family with anti-oxidant and ant-inflammatory  properties. Kale is usually cheap, too as it's not too popular as vegetables go. I make a soup of kale, cannelloni and garlic that I can't get enough of. The following is not so much a recipe as a cooking technique.

Kale  6-8 big leaves
two cans of cannelloni or about 3 cups of gnocchis
about 4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
(also fabulous with stock made of beef neck bones with the meat pulled from the bones for the soup)
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
big onion, chopped
slug (about 1/2  cup) white wine or balsamic vinegar- about 3 TBLS
olive oil
salt, pepper to taste
a few flakes of red pepper
sauteed, crumbled bacon - optional
crumbled goat cheese or feta - optional

Strip the leaves from the kale by folding then in half along the stem like the spine of a book. Chop the stems coarsely, chop the leaves. In olive oil, saute the stems until tender. Add chopped onion and saute until lightly brown. Add the chopped leaves, saute until soft. Add garlic and saute until you can smell it. Add to pot of heated stock. Simmer until it all smells good and the kale is soft, then add the cannelloni. I add the cans juice and all which gives a little thickness to the soup. Add salt, pepper and red pepper flakes then white wine or balsamic vinegar and simmer about 10 more minutes. If you like bacon, you can throw that in just before serving. If you want the cheese, serve that on top of each bowl as you serve it. If you want to get really decadent with your kale soup, have bacon and cheese! Kale stands up well to strong flavors like balsamic vinegar, goat cheese and bacon. You can eat this until your head blows off because it's really good for you. If you have fiber issues, you may want to ration yourself. Of course, if you added bacon, and/or cheese, it's not so benign.

Kale is marvelously adaptable. It's great roasted as a sort of potato chip alternative. Strip the leaves from the stalks. Discard the stalks or save them for some other dish later. Dry the leaves, brush them with olive oil and then sprinkle sea salt on both sides. Place on a lightly oiled cookie sheet. Place in very hot, 450 degree oven. Watch closely so they don't burn. When lightly browned, turn them over and roast until brown. Serve immediately. This is good crumbled onto the soup above. 

American Crows and European Starlings in the bird world are as ubiquitous as Kale in the garnish world. Like Kale, they are tough and highly adaptable. Both birds have been very successful on the planet, especially the Common Starling, or just 'Starling.' In European urban areas,  their roosting flock numbers are in the thousands. As they roost for the night, they swarm together in tight spheres that settle and rise repeatedly into the sky. The 'bird balls' undulate into odd shapes against the setting sun. In Denmark, the phenomenon is called "Black Sun." Starlings prefer insects,  but will eat anything if given opportunity, as do crows. Both birds are highly intelligent and will mimic the calls of other birds. Crows and Starlings are noisy, often troublesome birds regarded by many as pests. If you can just look at them as birds, though, they have their own beauty, like kale. However, I do not recommend adding crow nor starling to kale soup, though chicken might be nice.

European Starling