Archive for May, 2014

Fiddleheads: A Fleeting Delicacy

Trim off any brown ends and papery bits before blanching.

Trim off any brown ends and papery bits before blanching.

We are able to enjoy fiddlehead ferns for a few short weeks in spring.  These are the tender new shoots of the Ostrich Fern (Pteretis pensylvanica) popularly known as fiddleheads because they resemble the curl at the top of a violin.  They make a vitamin-laden, delicious side dish when properly prepared.  Many local stores carry them at this time of year, but you can harvest them yourself.  It’s important to pick the right ferns as some (Bracken) have been found to be carcinogenic.  The Ostrich Fern doesn’t have the furry covering that some other ferns have, making trimming them very easy.  The University of Maine has a good bulletin about fiddleheads.  They should be blanched before preparation as there are some reports of food borne illness from under-cooked ones (although we never did that when I was growing up and WE were never sick!)  The University of Maine recommends 15 minites (!) but I only do it for 7 minutes.  My mother used to cook them in milk but I prefer them sauteed in garlic and olive oil.  Yum!

Ready to eat.  Be sure not to cook them so long that the fresh green color is gone.

Ready to eat. Be sure not to cook them so long that the fresh green color is gone.

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Recycling-Warbler Style

This tiny cup nest sat high in the bayberry bush, untouched all winter.

This tiny cup nest sat high in the Bayberry bush, untouched all winter.

We have a Bayberry bush about 15 feet in front of the house here in Maine that is a favored nesting spot.  In the past it has hosted Cedar Waxwings, but last year a small cup nest was exposed to view when the leaves dropped in the fall.  I didn’t know which bird made the nest but I suspected a Black-throated Green Warbler as they nest very close to the house every year.  This morning my theoretical nester ID was strengthened considerably when a female Black-throated Green began taking nesting material from this old nest.  She worked diligently for about an hour, finally knocking the center of the nest to the ground below.  The inside appears to be lined with hair, feathers and moss, perhaps held together by spidersilk, as she needs to tug some to loosen it.

This Black-throated Green Warbler female is taking the soft inside of the nest for re-use in her new nest.

This Black-throated Green Warbler female is taking the soft inside of the nest for re-use in her new nest.

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Asparagus!

Simple and delicious.

Simple and delicious.

I was planning to make my next post about the birds and flowers we saw in Big Bend, but our asparagus season has been so bountiful, I had to share our favorite preparation with you.   As I’ve said before, it tastes so delicious freshly picked that it’s a shame to dress it up too much and disguise the flavor.  One very easy  method that is simply to pan sear it in garlic and olive oil.  For this, film a large skillet with olive oil and heat over a medium flame until it is hot but not smoking.  Spread the asparagus out in a single layer, hake to cover with oil and sprinkle with a pinch or two of salt and dust with garlic powder (I know, horrors, but it is a time saver and works pretty well in this application).  Let the spears cook undisturbed over med/low heat for about 7 or 8 minutes, then turn them.  Let them brown on the other side until the ends can be easily pierced with a sharp knife, about 15 minutes.  I pick any spear that is thicker than a pencil (so as not to weaken the plant) and this time works well for me, but if you buy thicker or thinner ones, adjust the time.  Don’t let them overcook.  The goal is browned blistery areas here and there.  If you truly are horrified by the use of garlic powder, by all means use chopped garlic, which you would add before the asparagus.  I would brown it slightly then remove it as the long searing required would make it bitter.

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Some Big Bend National Park Fauna

Greater Earless Lizard (Cophosaurus texanus)  They lack external ear openings to prevent sand from entering their ears.

Greater Earless Lizard (Cophosaurus texanus) They lack external ear openings to prevent sand from entering their ears.

Every time I visit Big Bend I am astounded by the diversity of  life that thrives in this harsh desert landscape.  I go to see the birds of course, but there are other very interesting creatures which a hiker encounters.   We encountered the Greater Earless Lizard at Burro Mesa Pouroff.  Another lizard we saw was the Big Bend Canyon Lizard (Sceloporus merriami annulatus) which is native to a narrow range in the Big Bend area.

We saw this Big Bend Canyon Lizard at Sam Nail Ranch.  They adjust their color to blend in with their surroundings.

We saw this Big Bend Canyon Lizard at Sam Nail Ranch. They adjust their color to blend in with their surroundings.

There were also a number of lovely butterflies.   I tried to photograph some, Pipevine Swallowtails and Banded Sisters but ended up with a number of photos of “the rock where the butterfly had been a moment before I clicked the shutter.”  I did manage to get a photo of the Hackberry Emperor (Asterocampa celtis).

Hackberry Emperor butterflies don't visit flowers but feed on sap, rotting fruit, carcasses and dung.  Hackberry Trees are their only host plant.

Hackberry Emperor butterflies don’t visit flowers but feed on sap, rotting fruit, carcasses and dung. Hackberry Trees are their only host plant.

There are also several attractive beetles we encountered.  These impressive ones, Black-striped Blister Beetles (Epicauda atrivittata) were on a bush on the way to Cattail Falls.  They were nearly 2″ long.  They can deliver a nasty bite.

Black-striped Blister Beetle

Black-striped Blister Beetle

On our way back to Midland for the flight home, we stopped at a Prairie Dog town to look for Burrowing Owls and I noticed this young Pronghorn Antelope.  I wonder if they are farmed as this one has a collar.

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Hiking in Big Bend National Park

The view from the Window was as expansive as I've ever seen it, the air was so clean.

The view from the Window was as expansive as I’ve ever seen it, the air was so clean.  It can be quite smoggy.

Yes, I know I’ve written about this before, but we’re just back from our sixth visit to this spectacular place and I want to share some of it with you.  This time I invited my close friends, the bird banding team from CT Audubon’s Birdcraft Museum and Sanctuary to come with us and we were joined by my very good friend Carla from Texas (she of the excellent bird spotting eyes).  We spent a week hiking and birding and having fun.  The weather was spectacular.  We had to work a little harder to see the birds as there was more water in the park so the birds weren’t forced into the few waterholes.  The bonus for us was that the desert was blooming.

I’ve written about my very favorite spot  Cattail Falls before but this time the Falls had more water than we have ever seen and the little grotto has developed a defense mechanism in that the entrance is thick with poison oak.

I wonder why they call it Boot Canyon....   :)

I wonder why they call it Boot Canyon…. 🙂

We hiked to Boot Spring via the Pinnacles Trail through Boot Canyon and had a number of sightings of the Colima Warbler, a bird that breeds only in this spot in the United States.  This time we saw no bears but the mules had just brought up mulch for the composting outhouses and they were tethered near the spring.

The steep trails are easily negotiated by mules.

The steep trails are easily negotiated by mules.

One of the last hikes we took was to Burro Mesa Pouroff.  This easy hike is only a mile round trip and the box canyon is well worth visiting.

Burro Mesa Pour-off has been formed by the run-off of flash flood waters from Javelina Wash.   To me this spectacular site is more beautiful than any cathedral.  Our bonus was a sighting of the endangered Black-capped Vireo.

Burro Mesa Pour-off has been formed by the run-off of flash flood waters from Javelina Wash. To me this spectacular site is more beautiful than any cathedral. Our bonus was a sighting of the endangered Black-capped Vireo.

Next time I’ll post pictures of some of the birds and other fauna we encountered.

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Banding Wood Warblers at Birdcraft

Black-throated Blue Warbler (Dendroica caerulescens).  These birds nest in the Northeastern Us and Southeastern Canada.

Black-throated Blue Warbler (Dendroica caerulescens). These birds nest in the Northeastern U.S. and Southeastern Canada.

Today we awoke to a chorus of birdsong and the bird banders of Birdcraft Museum and Sanctuary in Fairfield, Connecticut went down to see which birds had migrated in.  The stormy weather had kept the birds from migrating north and the change to milder conditions brought a big push, birds eager to get to their breeding grounds for the best territories.   We identified the following species in the Sanctuary:  Hooded Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Eastern Towhee, Blue-headed Vireo, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Hermit Thrush, Ovenbird, Blue-winged Warbler, American Robin, Gray Catbird, Downy Woodpecker, Tree Swallow, Northern Waterthrush, Myrtle (Yellow-rumped) Warbler, Magnolia Warbler and Black and White Warblers.   Following is a series of photographs of the banding of a Black-throated Blue Warbler.

Here I am trying to determine his age.  The blue edging on his alula feahter (the triangular on at the bend) has a blue edge, indicating an older bird, which we call ASY (after second year) as this is the closest we can come to his age with certainty.  He could be older.

Here I am trying to determine his age. The blue edging on his alula feather (the triangular one at the bend or his wing) has a blue edge, indicating an older bird, which we call ASY (After Second Year) as this is the closest we can come to his age with certainty. He could be older.

Here he is waiting while I open the band.  This band has a unique number which we report to the Bird Banding Lab at US Fish and wildlife Service.

Here he is waiting while I open the band. This band has a unique number which we report to the Bird Banding Lab at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Another indication of the bird's age is shown in the number of white spots in the tail.  This male has four spots on each side indicating full maturity.

Another indication of the bird’s age is shown in the number of white spots in the tail. This male has four spots on each side, indicating full maturity.

After we check him for fat and weigh him, he is released.  Free at last!

After we check him for fat and weigh him, he is released. Free at last!

Banding of birds is only done by specially trained people licensed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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