Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Foods and Wines of a Spouse's 80th Birthday Celebration.

Larry's Market, Brown Deer Village

Larry, with his signature beret.
     Recently my husband of 49 years celebrated his 80th Birthday. He has been feeling those 80 years and I did not think he would really want to celebrate other than perhaps a visit to our most often attended restaurant, Joey Gerard's, in Milwaukee. But I discovered that even after knowing a person for 50 years, it is not always possible to know what would make them happy. My husband began talking to his sons about them coming to visit around the birthday time. And, God bless them, they both agreed to work a visit into their  busy work schedules. Then they began to ask what the celebration would entail. That prompted me to ask my husband if he wanted to have a  true dinner party. After some discussion, he seemed to actually want a few guests in addition to our two sons. Therefore, I was able to find a few friends, most of them MD's to come to a dinner at our home on April 30, Saturday night. I decided at this point in my life, I was too lazy to do a complete dinner party for 10 people myself. First I went to Shully's in Thiensville, to check out what they had to offer. I had hired their catering services fully 25 years ago when we celebrated our 25th Wedding Anniversary on the same day that we celebrated our youngest son's Graduation -- a two party extravaganza. They had done a superb job. However, now they have built a lovely venue along the Milwaukee River to host weddings and other events. At least regarding my intentions for this party, they were too pricey. So my husband and I returned to an old favorite in the Old Village of Brown Deer -- Larry's Market. As we entered to discuss our dinner with the Event Planner, we met 92 year old Larry, himself leaving the premises. It was a Friday and the first Baseball Season outdoor cookout at Larry's and he had come to kick it off. Well, suffice it to say, Larry's Market also came through for us. I was able to serve a wonderful pate' appetizer plate, a fresh green salad, both roasted tenderloin and mashed potatoes and a grilled salmon entree with lemon dill sauce and noodles, glazed carrots, dinner rolls. For dessert, we had an Edible Arrangements fruit bouquet that my sisters sent, and Larry's Chocolate Decadence Cake.
The James Gang; our cousin, right, at the end.

1860s  Brunswick mahogany bar, Blue Eye, MO
Tobin James Wine Tasting Room
   For our wines at this dinner party, I chose the James Gang Club Wines, from Tobin James Winery, Hwy 46, Paso Robles, CA. The co-owner of this Winery is Lance Silver, a third cousin of my husband, on his mother's side. Some years ago, we made a surprise visit to Tobin James fun tasting room, found his wife behind the tasting bar, and spread out a huge genealogical tree that showed how we were distantly connected. Amos' father used to say we were not a shirt-tail relative, but indeed we were like the threads of the shirt tail. Lance was called out from the winery and seemed mildly impressed with the family tree, but his eyes lit up when we began to comment about his Silver Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. After another comment about his Zinfandel, he gave us a fresh tasting glass and invited us out to the "cave" where he dipped some soon to be bottled reserve Cabernet from the oak barrels in which they were aging. We were able to do a vertical tasting of several years worth of some of his best wines. We were a member of his Club, called the James Gang, for a while and these wines are at peak at this time. A few of us sampled a 2010 Radiance, a Reserve Chardonnay by Tobin James. My dinner guests enjoyed the 2010 Silver Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon just as much as we had in the past. I let my sons choose what to open next. These wines included a combination of 60% cab and 40% syrah, a very unusual combination of a bordeaux grape and a Rhone grape. (They grow a lot of Rhone varietals in the Paso area.) We also drank a very unusual wine: The 2010 Tobin James Reserve Lagrein. Here is a quote from the winemaker's website:

"Lagrein is an ancient grape variety that finds its home in the sunny vineyards of Trentino-Alto Adige in northeastern Italy. Its wines are strong and full bodied with plum and wild cherry flavors, and the variety is particularly well known for the deep, dense color it imparts on wines. Lagrein has a characteristically north-Italian fresh, acidic structure and a slightly astringent finish, making it best paired with food.
The grape is most probably native to the region, and is thought to take its name from the town of Val Lagarina in Trentino. It has certainly been grown in this area for hundreds of years, and is first mentioned in texts that date back as far as the 16th Century. Other theories give Lagrein a Greek origin, suggesting that it is closely related to wines that were once made around the city of Lagaria in Greece. DNA testing has suggested Teroldego as a possible parent, supporting the theory that the variety is native to Italy's Alpine northwest." A description on line reports that this ancient and little known grape is being grown in the New World, especially in Argentina and in California.

     It is quite interesting that Lance Silver and Tobin James have tried very unusual wine varietals in the past. I wrote at this site in the past about a Tobin James varietal wine, called Refosco. See the following link:
As an interesting aside, the Lagrein grape comes from a similar area as the Refosco grape. Trentino, an area in northern Italy, is named in both of their origins.

A grouping of Tobin James wines with the famous logo.

       Getting back to our dinner party: Tobin James makes a late harvest Zinfandel, I believe, every year. It is called "Liquid Love." I have purchased a lot of bottles of this wine over the last few years and there were still a couple bottles left from our "James Gang" club orders. This was the perfect sweeter dessert wine to serve with Larry's Market Chocolate Decadence Cake. At that Tobin James tasting bar, a few pieces of semi sweet chocolate are placed on a napkin when Liquid Love is poured.  I believe it is unusual to make a 'late harvest' zinfandel, though since so much zinfandel is grown in the Central Coast of California, there are a number of late harvest zinfandels bottled. I just have learned that the typical "Liquid Love" vintage can be 35 brix at harvest; this is a lot of sugar. Yet the wine is not overly sweet and is often classified as a semi-dry wine. That is because it is made in a style that ferments most of that sugar to alcohol, reaching often over 17% alcohol, making it very Port-like. Our guests certainly enjoyed the Liquid Love.

       Here are a couple photos of our Saturday night celebrations:

      Our sons gave my husband a very nice birthday present: a gift certificate to Sanford's, our favorite restaurant in Milwaukee. I guess after 49 years of marriage, I deserve to get to go along for a wonderful dinner, on my husband's actual birthday evening.

The intimate Sanford Restaurant, Milwaukee, East Side

Intimate Interior of Sanford Restaurant.

Hard salty and spicy breadsticks welcome on every table.
      Sanford's has not changed at all since we were last there a couple of years ago. We both chose the Chef's Surprise menu with wine pairings. This special menu is supposed to be 7 courses, but they serve everyone a small bite of a liver pate mousse first and then we also got a special dessert plate
with Happy  80th Birthday written in frosting with some whipped cream and a candle at the end. So we really had 9 courses -- that is 9 different plates of food. The first of the seven courses was a goat
sausage with goat cheese yogurt drizzled with apricot honey and sprinkled with toasted walnut pieces, served with a Spanish sparkling rose wine. Cindy, I bet you could smell that goat even from
Indianapolis. The second course was a sea scallop with some veggies and a mole sauce served with a German Riesling; which was my favorite course. Then there was  swordfish with sauteed  baby fiddle head ferns; served with a Vouvray chenin blanc wine from the Loire Valley which was my favorite wine;  then a grilled piece of quail with heritage potato pieces with salmon roe and an Argentinian malbec wine. Last savory course was grilled tenderloin with mashed potatoes and finely slivered
carrots and other root veggies served with a very nice Sonoma Zinfandel. Then there was a palette cleanser -- a sweet coconut soup with a dollop of lime sorbet floating in it. The dessert was an
espresso chocolate cake with coconut sorbet, chocolate sauce and roasted peanuts., served with a sweet bordeaux white wine.  Then came Amos' Happy Birthday plate. Then coffee. It was a very fun evening. The surprises on the palette were fabulous. And many people around us were also trying the Surprise Menu so one could share the tastes. I thank our sons so much for this wonderful evening. We enjoyed it very very much.
Goat sausage with goat milk yogurt, apricot honey and roasted walnuts. Yummy!

Swordfish with ferns and apricots.
Quail with salmon roe and veggies.
     So now my husband is 80 years old and we are completely satiated. Wonderful!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

98 Years Old and Still Going

     My mother turned 98 years old in October. She still lives by herself. She is almost blind with wet macular degeneration and is what I would call "stone deaf." But her mind is fine and she still fixes food for herself, and keeps her small house. We three daughters take turns attending to some of her needs, such as making sure there are groceries in the house, and sometimes bringing prepared food for her, taking her to various doctor's appointments, and to social and family events. My two sisters keep track of her finances and keep files for taxes, for greeting cards she wants to send to various people, and of appointments she must keep. She is a member of a church in her small town and the members there make sure she gets to church events and even to a few other social events in the community.

     Neighbors watch out for her. One morning she awoke to the sound of a man's voice calling her name as he came down her hall to her bedroom. She had fallen back asleep in the early morning after a somewhat sleepless night and it was 10:30 in the morning. She had not opened the shade on her bathroom window. A neighbor gentleman can see that window from his living room window and noted this. He considered what to do for a while and then decided he would check on her. He became more worried as he came down the incline from his home and said he was running by the time he got to her door. He had a key and came right into the house. But she was alright, a little confused and scared by the sound of his voice in her home. We three daughters were thankful that she has neighbors like this. Another lady who lives across the street watches to make sure she opens the living room drapes each morning.

     My husband believes we are abusing this old lady by not putting her in a nursing home. His mother lived and died in Israel and a relative there did find such a place for her so that is what my husband knows. He was living in the US and didn't have to deal with this decision himself. He actually got into trouble with my sister and her husband by being too vocal about that issue. But we three girls are all in agreement. Mom wants to stay in her home; doesn't want a nursing home unless she gets to a point where she must. Now, she is at some risk, we know. She took a fall a few weeks back and an abrasion on the front of her leg is still healing. We know there is a risk of her falling and breaking a hip or even worse. We have done what we can to prevent that. Recently the Comfort Care Keeper supervisor came for a visit and rolled up some throw rugs that were laying on the floor and took them out of the house. We have purchased a medical alert system and she wears an emergency button around her neck at all times. There is a lockbox outside the home so that in the event of a medical or other emergency, first responders can get into the locked home. We have employed a worker from an organization called Comfort Keepers to come and do some light housekeeping and to serve as a companion every couple weeks. When my mother's back was really bad, we had her coming twice a week, but as the back improved Mom lengthened out the time between these visits. She says she feels she has to come up with something for Joan to do, like she has to entertain Joan and that has become a burden for her. Lately we have encouraged her to have Joan to come more often, because we want her to do some light cooking for mom.

     The beauty of all this is that Mom still has her mind. She wants to know what is gong on. Even though she can't hear well, she always asks what was said. She is having a little word finding difficulties but otherwise her memory is almost perfect. I keep telling her that she will make it to 100. She doesn't believe it, but I

     Mom has always been a packrat. Now that tendency is somewhat worse because she can't see well enough to know what can be thrown away. Also she has some treasures among all that stuff. We will have to sort through it some day. Someone recently said that there is another euphemistic name for a packrat. I have that gene also so I was happy to learn that I could call my mother and myself, an archivist.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Little Gray Furry Creature

     Just having completed my photo essay on the End of the Earth, I was walking through the house not trying too hard, but contemplating a possible topic for my next posting. And low and behold came to mind my adventure with the little dark grey mouse like character on my back porch. I learned quite a bit from that experience and will share my knowledge.
     In preparation for this weekend with its warnings of snow (it did produce a winter wonderland) and the cold snap that was to follow, I was cleaning off my back stoop. There were some osteospermia (Cape daisies) that I had planned to pot up and over winter, along with three pots of fuchsia where 2 out of 3 of the fuchsia vines had died. I planned to pot up the three into one hanging pot and take it in for the winter as well. Also there was a conglomeration of lawn sprinklers, spray hose heads, garden tools from trowels, clippers, a lopper, to small saws accumulated out there. They need to be brought in and cleaned up and maybe sharpened for next year. (This is what Martha Stewart would say. I usually don't do anything with my tools. They aren't pretty and they probably become dull too quickly, but I am lazy that way. But they did need to be brought in.) I picked up an old plastic flat left over from my summer annual purchases. Various items had found their way into this tray including a couple pots, some gloves, and a small box of powdered fertilizer, Miracle Gro, I think. It was windy and I was going to take this tray into the warmer shelter of the back porch to sort through these odds and ends and get them to where they belong, or in the garbage can. As I entered the porch, a small dark creature wriggled out and flopped down to the floor. It immediately scurried under one of my bamboo shelving units. Oh dear! A problem! Maybe not as bad as in the house proper, but still more work than I had planned.
     The porch is small, contains two bamboo cabinets, an outdoor cushioned chaise lounge, and a matching rocking chair, various baskets of fairy garden items gathered for the winter, a small terrarium on a stand, and some bags of seeds, fertilizer, and potting soil, along with the plants that I had potted up and brought in just a short time before. The little charcoal colored furry creature scurried under one of the shelves. I took a broom and stomped around and chased it around for about 20 minutes with the porch door open trying to get it to run out. Every time it came to the door molding it just ran across no doubt to some shelter that it saw straight ahead. Finally I gave up that day.
     I thought it was a mole at first. And the next morning even more so, because there was a pile of dirt dug out of one of my potted plants and a nice round hole to the very bottom of the pot. Aha! I thought I had the solution. I carefully took the pot outside and emptied it. This was one of the osteospermia I had just potted up so the dirt was very loose. No animal was there. I did a very thorough search of the porch, under the shelves, in various baskets and paper bags-- no animal found. Due to the digging I was more certain that this was a mole. I have seen their pig like nose poking out occasionally from holes in our stone wall. Maybe I would have to get a live trap and bait it to try to catch this critter. I went online to find out what to do. I learned first that moles are fairly solitary, almost always underground, blind, and above all fairly slow in movement. They move according to their very acute hearing and vibration sensation. One guy said if you find a mole outside its tunnel, or one by accident gets in your garage, just pick it up with gloves. Well, this creature moved far too fast to just pick it up. And in terms of trapping moles, it was difficult. They eat worms and grubs and not seeds or peanut butter like a mouse, so live traps don't work. There are some fake poison worms you can try but they need to be inserted into their tunnels and they don't always work. I didn't think they would lure a mole into a live trap. What I did learn was that moles have to eat every 8 hours or so and I didn't think there were any worms or grubs in my porch, even in my pots because I had just potted them with store bought soil. Maybe my "mole" would become hungry, get weaker, and slower and I would be able to find it, catch it, or maybe it would die. Ewwww!
     Last night I looked out onto the porch before I went to bed. Nothing. No piles of dirt, no mess. Maybe the little creature had squeezed through one of the porch drainage holes and gotten out. I hoped.
     This morning amid the white wonderland out there, I looked out onto the porch. I still had the problem. There were scatterings of dirt on the floor and now stems and chewed leaves from my osteospermia plant. What ever it was, it had food. No hope on that solution. Then I looked out again at noon. There it was next to the potted plant eating a stem of osteospermia. I went to get a camera for a picture and the binoculars to focus on its snout to determine what it was. When I came back, I must have made a little noise and it dove into the flower pot. A little bit later, dirt began to fly out of the pot. It was digging. Well, I gave up on the photos and decided this was my chance to move it out. I carefully picked up the pot and quickly set it outside. Then I watched. And out came the little gray creature, wondered over to under the grill, then ran along the stone heading of the foundation of the porch and disappeared. Problem solved. And as it had run away I had gotten a view of its tail, a very short hairless pointed one, unlike the mole which is more bulbous and hairy. This animal was way to dark gray - really a charcoal gray - for a field mouse, or deer mouse. I didn't get a good look at its snout which would distinguish it as a shrew, but what it had eaten and the tail told the story. It was a meadow vole. Wow, I had seen these little buggers rustling around in my leaves near the house and once in a while running across the walk. So we have many many little voles living around our house. Now I have to look up if this could become a problem. I have often thought they make great horned owl food and I like to have the owls around.

A meadow vole.
      Moles, voles, shrews, and mice?  Which is it?

     Moles are fairly solitary, usually not seen because they stay beneath the ground. They eat earthworms, grubs and other underground insect forms. They are the larger of these four animals, have dark black very thick short velvety fur. Their front feet are broad and stick out from the body because they use them to dig. Their eyes are so tiny as to not be visible. The species I have seen in our yard is the star nosed mole. It's nose is quite something. Moles move slowly and are almost blind but are very sensitive to sound and vibration. They are regarded as beneficial to your yard because they aerate the soil and eat destructive grubs. Some people have hired professionals to come and trap the moles thinking they have created all the shallow tunnels in their turf, only to lose large sections of their turf to the grubs that had drawn the moles in the first place.

     Field mice and deer mice are characteristic mice with long pointy ears, a small pointed snout, and long hairless tail. They tend to be light brown or gray. They eat seeds and plant materials. And they like to come into warm houses for the winter. They can be destructive of various things they encounter in order to make their nests. They are easily trapped with peanut butter, cheese, or bread as bait.

     I had no idea how common shrews are. The most common is the short tailed shrew here in Wisconsin. They are the smallest of this similar group of animals, only about 3 inches long including its 1 inch hairless tail. They have a very long pointed snout. They are also carnivorous, eating insects, bird eggs, baby birds, and other baby rodents if they come upon them. They even eat voles which we will discuss next. They have a vicious bite with a toxin in the saliva which will paralyze and kill some of their prey. They even prey on voles and each other. I have never seen one of these little guys. When your cat leaves you a "gift" of a mouse on your doorstep, it is often a shrew. The reason the cat left it is because it has glands which produce such a pungent odor, that most cats will not eat it. However, owls and snakes with their poor sense of smell will prey on these tiny animals.

     And of course my animal was a vole. It is between a shrew and a mole in size, with a stubby body, small ears, tiny eyes, blunted snout, and a hairless tail just a little longer than a shrew's. Voles are completely vegetarian. They also multiply very quickly and prodigiously. These are the animals that can do damage in your garden. They eat small tree bark at the ground level and are usually the animal that is guilty of girdling and killing a tree, rather than it being rabbits. They also eat the stems of several garden favorites like hosta, and hydrangea. I now recognize that it was a vole I saw eating off the stems of my clematis. It forced me to put an apron of hardware cloth around that bush. I had blamed the rabbits until I saw this creature in action. My vole on my back porch was doing a destructive number on my osteospermia. I knew there was an unknown reason why I always plant these in my pots and not in the ground. They have left them alone in the pots. Also when the supposed mole runs in your yard are particularly noticeable in the spring, it is more due to the voles using them and digging to the side looking for roots and other vegetation than to the moles themselves. Voles don't like to show themselves so if you keep the mulch and leaves away from trees and other stems the voles will be less likely to eat them because they have to show themselves. If you have a problem with the number of voles, you can easily catch them by putting traps baited with peanut butter along their runs, and covering the traps with a small cardboard box, or pot. They will be more likely to investigate the peanut butter in the dark under the box or pot. If you catch one, then put a slice of apple under the box. If you see teeth marks in it the next day, use the trap again. Fortunately, voles usually do not come into the house on their own as mice do. Unless, of course, brought in accidentally as I did and then they seem rather ingenious about finding the plant materials. 

     Always curious, I learned a lot. Hope you did too.    

Friday, November 20, 2015

To the Ends of the Earth!

       Sometimes in looking back at one's life, certain decisions that are turning points seem to stand out in vivid technicolor. A life decision which may even seem small in the scheme of things takes a turn that dramatically affects everything else you do for the rest of your life. Such is the case for me. One evening at the corner of the Theatre wing of the University of Wisconsin Student Union, I chose to chat with a young man who stopped to talk. I learned many years later that he was indeed hitting on me. We chatted, and from there a 50 year relationship developed. And that relationship, i.e. marriage was characterized by a dramatic broadening of both of our horizons socially, culturally and indeed internationally. That husband loved to travel and see the world. And he dragged me along, though not reluctantly. From him I learned to travel and to see the world's wonderful places, peoples, and promontories.

     By googling my title for this post, I found a song by a recent folk band that I had never heard of. Here is a link to a YouTube video for a song from their recent album, Lonesome Dreamer. The band is Los Angeles based, Lord Huron. The lyrics follow the link and express some of the longings for travel that I am sure my husband has felt. I never was entirely taken up by such longings, but I certainly was happy to "follow" him and enjoy the fruits of his desires and plannings. After listening to the song and perusing the lyrics, please enjoy some of the photos that my husband has taken over the years of our vast travels to 96 different countries spanning over all 7 continents. These photos all represent "The Ends of the Earth," in some fashion, either geographically, topographically, due to the remoteness, or just in spirit.

Ends Of The Earth Lyrics

"Ends Of The Earth" was written by Schneider, Ben. 
Oh, there's a river that winds on forever
I'm gonna see where it leads
Oh, there's a mountain that no man has mounted
I'm gonna stand on the peak
Out there's a land that time don't command
Wanna be the first to arrive
No time for ponderin' why I'm-a wanderin'
Not while we're both still alive

To the ends of the earth, would you follow me
There's a world that was meant for our eyes to see
To the ends of the earth, would you follow me
If you won't  I'll have to say my goodbyes to thee

Oh, there's an island where all things are silent
I'm gonna whistle a tune
Oh, there's a desert that size can't be measured
I'm gonna count all the dunes
Out there's a a world that calls for me, girl
Headin' out into the unknown
Well if there are strangers, and all kinds of danger
Please don't say I'm going alone 

To the ends of the earth, would you follow me
There's a world that was meant for our eyes to see
To the ends of the earth, would you follow me
Well if you won't, I will say my goodbyes to thee

I was a-ready to die for you, baby
Doesn't mean I'm ready to stay
What good is livin' a life you've been given
If all you do is stand in one place
I'm on a river that winds on forever
Follow 'til I get where I'm goin'
Maybe I'm headin' to die but I'm still gonna try
I guess I'm goin' alone


To The Ends of the Earth -- The Photos

       The above two photos are taken in Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico, USA. This area in our own country seems to be at the End of the Earth both in remoteness of place and remoteness of time. It honors the tribal area and ruins of the Ancestral Puebloans, dating from 1150 to 1600AD. This Monument is off the beaten path, just south of Los Alamos, and deserves more visits. Probably few Americans know of this place and its history. Chaco Canyon, also in New Mexico, and Mesa Verde, in Colorado, are better known. 

     This place is one of the few places on earth that can be truly called the End of the Earth. It is a well known Cape. By definition, a cape is a piece of land along the sea where the coastline makes a significant change in direction.Can you guess which Cape this is? A clue: in sailing, it is one of the three Great Capes, landmarks in circumnavigating the Southern Ocean.
Cape Horn: 150 some steps up to the top. I am told due to these rickety steps, tours no longer stop here.

Albatross sculpture on top of Cape Horn, truly at the end of the earth.
     For views of another of the Great Capes, see my blog: Mystery Photo 26: Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. The third of the three Great Capes is Cape Leeuwin,  Australia. We have not been there.
Icelandic geothermal area.

Let's go north now to some ends of the earth there. In spite of its appearance, this is not in the US; it is not Yellowstone even though it looks very similar. This is a huge geothermal area in Iceland. This is what Iceland is famous for -- one of the several hot mineral baths provided by these warm geothermal waters.

Hot mineral baths in Iceland, very welcome warm therapeutic waters.

Tectonic Plates: North American plate meets Eurasian plate.
      And near here (and seen in photo above)is a true end of the earth: Along this low ridge runs a crack in the rock. Along that crack are many small caves. These caves contain hot mineral water pools and even steam areas. And though you can not see this, at the very bottom of this crack, some 10 to 18 miles deep is the molten mantle of our lovely planet. Stretching from north to south across the western end of Iceland runs the junction between the Eurasian and the North American tectonic plates. They are slowly diverging. While we visited this area, we saw a collapsed footbridge near a National Park visitor center. It had fallen because its supports had moved about a foot apart. The bridge couldn't take the new stresses and collapsed. Also here a foot or so of sidewalk fell away. In some areas here the rift valley is almost 1/2 mile wide. It is in an area like this that the first parliament-like meetings of the local Icelanders took place in 908.

     And yes, Iceland is truly green.

      Greenland (above) on the other hand is not green. It is basically white with ice and dark gray with rock.   Talk about misnomers.
      And now half around the world:

      Fetahpur Sikri is located in the Golden Triangle of India formed by lines drawn from Delhi, to Agra, and then to Jaipur. Though it is close to Agra, the Taj Mahal dominates that area and few people bother to journey out to this ancient and well preserved Mughal capitol city. The famous Mughal Emperor, Akbar, built and used this capitol city from 1571 to 1585. He only occupied and centered his Imperial court in a completed fashion for less than a year. Now it is a well preserved ghost town, visited by very few. It is quite impressive, also isolated due to cultural factors and in time.

     Here is another kind of end of the earth: Let's say you were a tiny being that could exist at the heart of our planet. And you decided to travel and follow the currents of the hot liquid that is the interior of our planet. You might find a current that seems to be rising. You would travel in this current for about 3,968 miles to the surface. For the sake of this story, let's say you follow a stream of molten rock that eventually begins to seep upwards through the crust of the earth in through various cracks and your travel thus takes you upwards to the top of the Nasca tectonic plate in the Galapagos Islands. You erupt from a volcano on the Island Isabella which has 6 volcanoes, all six of them active. So, little molten rock being, you would see the "end of the earth" as you erupt past the edge of your caldera. And if you quickly looked back down you would see our little boat, Eclipse. We passengers, visitors to the Galapagos, are having a volcano party on board. 

One of six active volcanoes acting up on Isle Isabella, Galapagos.
Volcano Party on board the Eclipse. Everyone wore orange.

    I have a very high end of the earth for you. Lesotho is a country in the mountains of southern Africa. It is completely surrounded by South Africa and is the homeland of the Basuto people. To get there from South Africa, it is customary to take a tour from the much lower lands in South Africa up through Sani Pass, at an altitude of 9,436 feet.  Lesotho is primitive and very sparsely populated, so first the rough and rising road to Sani Pass makes you think you are going to the Ends of the Earth and then when you get to Lesotho, you realize you have reached your destination -- at the ends of the earth. Here are a few photos.
Here's where we are going, up those mountains to Lesotho.
We are about 2/3 of the way up.

There is a pub at the end of the earth.

Some of the locals.
You think you are at the end of the earth until you see these children. No just heaven.

     Other ends of the earth:

White Cliffs of Dover: end of the earth to some, back home to many others.

Death Valley, California, USA

Chinese Fishing Nets, Kerela, at the southern tip of India.

Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet in the Himalaya Mountains.

Remote Uluru (Ayer's Rock) in the Australian Outback

Coast of Israel, looking north from Acre to Rosh Hanikra in North

Rosh Hanikra, Israel's last outpost before Lebanon and enemies.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Rental Properties Are for the Birds! Bluebirds and Orioles

  I am just getting around to writing this story about my summer of 2015. It seems appropriate since on November 5th, it almost seemed as though summer just ended. A cold front has just come through after 4 days of sunny 70 degree weather. Actually it was 3 non consecutive days of 70 degrees. There was a 69 degree day in that 4 day stretch. Today temperatures will only get to about 50 degrees and there is a stiff gusty northwest wind providing a chill. But it is November; this is expected. Fifty degrees is really not that bad at all. So I will summarize one of the best stories of my summer and also provide some photos to illustrate.
     Some of my readers know that I am a bird watcher and a bird lover. This last spring and early summer I was deeply involved in trying to manage my bird properties. I did a brief breeding count on my property in June and reached the sum total of  20 pairs of birds nesting on my approximate 3 1/2 acre piece of land including the Lake Michigan bluff. These birds were known to be nesting on my property by observing them collecting nesting material and following where they took the material, or by directly observing the nest either in bushes, chimney, light fixture, or nest box. I have 5 specific bluebird houses in function, 3 wren boxes, one chickadee box, and a tall pole of 8 purple martin boxes to which I have never been able to attract martins even with fake birds perched there or by playing recordings of their calls. We had three pairs of robins, 3 pairs of wrens, a cardinal pair, a tree swallow pair, a pair of mourning doves, two pairs of catbirds, chimney swifts ( I don't know how many pairs), bank swallow, a pair of red bellied woodpeckers on property, and chickadees and white breasted nuthatch nearby, of course house sparrows,  and my special  treat this year -- the bluebirds and the northern oriole as close neighbors to each other and to we human residents.
Robins raised two broods on our downspout immediately adjacent to front door.

Empty robin nest from another pair in arbor vitae adjacent to our garage.

One of my 3 wren houses, occupied in the photo.
     It is with the nest boxes that I have had the most difficulty this year. For some reason only one pair of my wrens agreed to use the wren nest box. Three other pairs were insisting on using my blue bird houses. I evicted them several times until finally I found a wren nest with 3 tiny white speckled eggs in it. I couldn't bring myself to evict them so there went one of my bluebird houses, taken over by the wrens that I allowed to continue with their nesting process. I was evicting wrens constantly from the far front bluebird house and occasionally also house sparrows. I was also evicting wrens from a house closer to our front door, but bluebirds often didn't like this house because it has a predator guard on it (a block of wood which significantly deepens the hole.) So I was less careful about my property control there. With all the fighting with wrens and sparrows, I decided to erect a brand new bluebird house on a rise very close to my back patio. I kept evicting wrens from it faithfully and the final time the wren's pile of sticks had a nice grass liner to the nest. That female was very ready to lay eggs and I had evicted her. Well, as is characteristic of wrens, she was very ingenious. She decided to make a quick nest inside the metal birdseed feeder that I was not filling so far this summer. Nice digs! Certainly dry and the feeding hole would not admit any other species except a little wren. That pair went on to fledge a complete brood from the feeder. Within 2 days of their fledging, the male had "married" another female and was setting up a nest in one of my wren boxes that I had moved closer to that feeder to try to get the wrens to use it. The first female was no doubt still tending to the first brood. What do you think? Is 10 feet far enough away from your exwife's house to set up your mistress housekeeping? Anyway I did have this and one other wren house now performing in the way they were intended. 
The metal bird feeder, one wren pair chose for nesting.

      Meanwhile house finches have used our back porch light fixture for nesting for several years. My husband evicts them by pulling out the nest. They rebuild it within days. Finally for the last brood last year and this year I have just let them live there. We almost never use that fixture so I am not worried about fire. The female is very brave. She sits on the nest even if I come in and out of the back screened porch. If I exit on the back stoop she does fly away but without any verbal complaints. And she comes right back to continue her rearing of her babies. I admire bravery in birds and I allow them to continue in this nest.

     Since I was having so much trouble keeping my bluebird houses free for them, I decided this year to buy a new house and mount it close to my back patio. If I could attract a pair there, we would be able to closely watch them from our picnic table and from the house. My other bluebird houses are at some distance from the house. I put up the house with predator guard and purchased some meal worms from my favorite store, Wild Bird Unlimited. I set up my pretty dish meal worm feeder right next to the blue bird house to really tempt Mr. and Mrs. Bluebird.
The bluebird house in the center with its predator guard. This is the view from our patio.

Mealworms in a bowl that will tempt the bluebirds.

Note the female bluebird in flight right center of photo.
     And it worked! The female who often makes the nestbox choice soon found the house near the mealworm dish. Her mate soon joined her and they began slowly to build a nest. I was able to observe all of the bluebird behavior that I love, including the good night greeting every evening at dusk during the incubation period. The male always comes the last thing to the hole to say good night to his mate. Sometimes he brings her a nice insect morsel. Then he goes off to roost for the night. And in about 14 days we had these lovely 5 baby bluebirds in the nest, here just beginning to show some blue fuzzy down.

The male guarding his nestbox.while hunting insects from it.
Five tiny bluebirds just starting to show some blue fuzz.
     Meanwhile I had spotted a pair of orioles that were sticking around much longer than usual and still coming to my orange slices and grape jelly feeder. I began to suspect that maybe they were considering nesting in our area. I returned to Wildbirds Unlimited to replenish my mealworms and told them I suspected I might have a nesting pair of orioles. The sales person talked me into purchasing some white polyester nesting material that the orioles would use to make their nest in addition to grasses and stems. I put the nesting material in a kitchen whisk and hung it near the oranges. It was just an hour or so before I witnessed the female oriole taking some of the nesting material. I followed her and saw her enter a lower branch of our big cottonwood tree, actually almost just above the bluebird box. She made several more trips that day and also took some of the mealworms. I was able to get a somewhat obstructed view of the oriole nest in among the large cottonwood leaves. As the days passed, I took some photos.. Interestingly the side of the woven basket shaped nest toward our house must have been completed before I put out the nesting material. It was made of grass and natural material. The side toward the lake which was still hanging free was mostly white with polyester. I continued to feed grape jelly and daily mealworms throughout the incubation and feeding of the nestlings for the orioles. The bluebirds never found the mealworms where I had moved them near the oranges. But they had plenty of insects all summer and were often seen hunting in our yard and in the neighbor's yards.
Right in the center of the photo, note the grassy bulbous shaped nest with cottonwood "cotton" around it.

The other side of the nest shows as a whitish woven area amongst the leaves right in center of photo. 
     The summer passed as we watched the bluebirds and the orioles feeding their young. Interestingly, the male oriole if around the nest branch at all would not let any other birds perch in that branch. He chased away even mourning doves and grackles, and even a crow who are all very much bigger than he is. And yet often the male bluebird perched in that cottonwood branch to keep track of his nest and to hunt insects in the grass below. I never saw the male oriole chase away the bluebird. It was as though they acknowledged that they were neighbors and both there for the same reason.

     I was able to get some photos of the orioles at my feeders  but none near their nest. They were always very quick at entering the nest, avoiding calling attention to themselves. During most of the oriole incubation period and nestling period, the two orioles were silent when near the nest. Only near what I had determined was near fledging time for the oriole young, did I hear them calling near the nest, probably trying to coax the young to leave the nest. 

The male oriole with his beak full of mealworms to take to the nestlings.

I continued feeding grape jelly throughout and only put out mealworms once or twice a day.

Male checking out the feeding station.

Female checking out the feeding station.
        Meanwhile back with the bluebirds, these youngsters have really grown. They are getting close to fledging size. This was the last time I opened the box, on about day 11 or 12 because I didn't want to force early fledging. These youngsters now recognize that my opening the box is not their mother or father. They don't open their mouth expecting to be fed and they actually hunker down and stay very still.

Day 12 after hatching.
      On the day that I had calculated the bluebirds would fledge (about day 14), I sat on my patio for hours trying to catch a first flight. Nothing happened; the mother went to the hole and tried to persuade the babies; the father stood on top of the box and leaned over and called to them. But nothing happened. I was sure it would happen the next day. I was unable to spend a lot of time on the patio that day due to other commitments and I was sure I was missing the event. But the next morning the babies were still in the box. I didn't open it, but I could see at least some still there moving around inside. It was not until the next day, 2 days after my calculated fledging date, that finally the nest was empty. I was unable to catch any of the first flights, but below is a photo of perhaps the most precocious of babies sitting boldly in the hole. But it took a long time for these reluctant little ones to leave the protection of that cozy nest.

Mom tries to persuade them.

Daddy speaks to them from the top of the nestbox.

One precocious youngster looking out, but not flying.
     After fledging, the bluebirds hang around the area for a while. I would hear the adults calling. There have been years when the whole family is seen digging in our eaves for insects under the fall leaves, or getting a drink from our birdbath or even from my water feature (some pots with water lilies and fish.) But this year after a week or so they disappeared.

     I never saw the orioles fledge. I did sit near my jelly and mealworm feeders to try to catch the orioles bring their young to teach them to visit the feeders. I sat at this cafe table and chairs for several stretches. The orioles had moved to some tall trees in the front yard but the adults were still coming to the feeders. When I followed them to the front yard, I could hear the young birds begging. I did catch one adult feeding a youngster among the branches of my magnolia tree which stands adjacent to my feeding station. There is a photo here of this event. That is the best that I could do.

Here's where I sat to try to photograph the orioles at the feeding station to the right.  Very pleasant place to wait.

Left center is an adult male oriole leaning down and feeding a youngster. See the open mouth and black head.
     What an exciting summer for the birds! I am closing with a few photos of my flowers among which I kept track of all these bird families.

White peonies putting on a show, late June. Everything was a couple weeks late this year.

More pink and deep red peonies.

Blue, yellow, apricot, and white irises that I didn't stake up. They provide an informal look to the garden.

Mauve foxglove always produce a showy focal point.

Alium blooms mixed with snow on the mountain blooms.

Several "Globemaster" alium standards.

Blue iris at dusk. I have a white iris re-blooming now in November. Also clematis.