Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Annual Geese-splosion

I think I have been to Middle Creek during spring migration almost every year since I moved back to Pennsylvania.  It's something of a tradition, but one that you definitely can't do on the same day every year.  Because of the harsh winter, the height of the goose migration was some three to four weeks later than some years.

Dad and I left while it was still dark and made it out to Willow Point in time for the sunrise.  Along with probably a hundred other people!  The birds were a little late leaving, it seemed.  Most waited till well after sunrise to take off.  There were times where it seemed like the world had a lid on it made out of birds.  Made the early alarm clock well worth it.

This shot is not fantastic, but I do like that the lone tundra swan is catching the glow of the rising sun, while the snow geese in the background are darker.

While waiting for the big take-off, I had plenty of time to scope the flocks, looking for the elusive Ross's Goose, or one of the Eurasian Wigeons that had been reported there.  I found neither, but I did come across an unusual looking Snow Goose.  It has a fully dark head.  I imagine this is a result of it feeding in a muddy area, though.  Still interesting to see!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Different Sort of Wigeon

American Wigeon are a type of duck that's pretty common on open water this time of year.  They are striking birds, with a bright cream stripe following the crown of an otherwise green and brownish head.   

But, occasionally, a different Wigeon shows up in the U.S.  Eurasian Wigeons are the Old World counterpart to the New World American Wigeons.  Eurasian Wigeons are pretty rare visitors, seen every year, but in low numbers.  A Eurasian Wigeon's head is a dark cinnamon, although the cream stripe is the same.

I was fortunate to hear about, and locate, a Eurasian Wigeon just up the road from us, hanging out in a wetland mitigation project in a township park.  Usually, in situations like that, I go and see every bird in the world, except for the one I'm looking for.  But this Wigeon was not elusive at all.

The only duck that provided anything close to a good photo opportunity was this Green-Winged Teal and his mate.  Teal are one of the smaller ducks, and they have a Eurasian counterpart, too, called Common Teal.  I don't think I have ever heard of a Common Teal sighting, though, certainly not one nearby.

Monday, March 16, 2015

A Sad Literary Loss

Last week, Sir Terry Pratchett passed away.  I read most of Pratchett's works in my early to mid 20s.  His books found me at exactly the right time, and I have always placed them, as a group, pretty much at the summit of the mountain of books I have read.

Pratchett had been suffering for years with early onset Alzheimers, and had other physical issues, but the news was incredibly sad despite the somewhat expected nature of it.

There is nothing on this earth quite like reading a Terry Pratchett book, so in honor, I chose a book of his to reread.  If you haven't tried any of his works yet, expect incredibly inventive satire, humor that has you laughing out loud regularly, and an insight into the human condition that blows you away.  You get lost in the silliness, and then, bam, you get slapped with a truth so deep and yet so obvious you wonder how you never saw it before.

For my reread, I picked Equal Rites.  I knew I wanted to read one of the Witch books, and this one seemed like it would be just the ticket.

I forgot that this was the third Discworld novel ever written.  This is the debut of Granny Weatherwax, my very favorite character, and we also get a taste of Death and the dwarves, a big dose a wizards, and a heaping platter of Ankh-Morpork.  Pretty much the perfect way to revisit Pratchett's universe.

I also printed out and framed a quote of Sir Terry's I had found years ago, but had never quite gotten around to fixing up.

In case you can't read the text, it says, "A woman always has half an onion left over, no matter what the size of the onion, the dish, or the woman."  It's hanging in my kitchen now, and I laugh every time I find myself putting away a partially used onion.  Which is pretty much every day.

Final call:

Sir Terry deserves all the stars there are.

A Strange Pairing

I recently read two books that are similar on one level but very different on others.  Both of them are on my 2015 Challenge list, but it was more or less chance that I read them back to back.

Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies is a short story collection.  I understand that the first story and the title story tend to be thought of as the best, but I have to say that I enjoyed the second story very much.  A tale of American children of Indian descent out trick-or-treating, while a visiting Bangladeshi scholar doesn't know if his family is dead or alive because of ongoing political turmoil surrounding the partition of Pakistan and Bangladesh.  That some children are imagining bogeymen and collecting candy, at the same time and on the same earth as children who may be victims of a civil war.  Those images had staying power for me.    

Final call:
Lahiri has a straightforward style, and her stories appear much simpler than they are.  I think most people would enjoy this book, be one of them.


The second book I read is A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes.  I have read Barnes before, two books actually, but wow.  This one takes the cake.  If I had a graphic for six stars, I would give it that.  

A History of the World is a novel, but you could argue that it's also a collection of short stories.  Ten stories and a personal essay that counts as the half.  At least one of the stories and the essay verges on nonfiction, and the story has a brilliant piece of art criticism.

So, it has a quirky structure and quirky topics for some of the chapters, there are extreme feats of imagination, and plenty of humor, too.  But this is a philosophical novel, at its base.  It seems to read as a deconstruction of religion, but turns into something very different, I think.  His message seems to be that people should seek objective truth, even if it doesn't exist, and be judged by the love they show their fellow humans.  And, that neither history, art, religion, or myth can supply objective truth.  I can't really argue that and have rarely seen it illuminated so creatively.  

I love this book the same way I love Cloud Atlas.  For tackling the big questions, although Barnes does it a lot more directly, even lapsing into his own voice (maybe).  The chapters at first don't seem at all connected, but eventually subtle connections, direct connections, and thematic similarities emerge.  By the end, I realized that the stories are having a philosophical argument among themselves, or at least, demonstrating the principles in the half chapter.

I saw this book compared to Joyce, Calvino, and Mitchell, but you really just have to read it to see what I am talking about.  I also remember thinking this book makes a nice, optimistic pairing to Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello, which seemed to say that Western Civilization was bankrupt and heading for moral crisis.

Final call:
I cannot recommend this book highly enough, but I also don't think the average person would like it.  I'm pretty sure this shouldn't be your first foray into books with disjointed narratives written by author/philosophers.  Maybe start with David Mitchell and Ghostwritten or Cloud Atlas for a taste of where this kind of book can take you.


Sunday, March 8, 2015

Seeds to Sow

When I was young and hanging out at Grandma's on winter days, one of the my favorite things to do was look through the seed catalogs that would flood her mailbox.  My Grandmother had a very large garden and ordered dozens of seed packets each year, and so got tons of catalogs, too.  If I was really lucky, and I usually was :), she'd add a flower or veggie variety that caught my eye to her order.

That interest she fostered in me still drives me to put out a small garden each year.  I don't have a lot of space in my tiny backyard, but I do have some good Lancaster County dirt, so I try to make the best of it.  I tend to pick tomatoes because they're fairly easy and the colors and shapes they come in fascinate me.  Always something new or different.

Grandma would collect butter tubs and milk jugs and anything that would hold dirt, more or less, to start her seeds in. I use peat pellets, they help me keep the operation organized. 

An old pencil is great for poking little holes in the peat, then covering up the seeds.  These are pepper seeds getting the treatment.  The last few years I have gotten my funky heirloom seeds from Baker Creek Seed Co.  They seem to be a really great company and have a crazy good selection of stuff.   

In December, I heard about an outfit called DollarSeed.  The selection is limited, but I paid about 85 cents per packet of seeds, so I can't complain.  I'm sure I'll be ordering from them again.

So, here's the end result:  four kinds of tomatoes, two kinds of cucumbers, tomatillos, and two kinds of peppers.  The paper you can see in some of the pictures is my chart, which is the way I manage to keep what I planted where straight.   

 I always plant more than I need, in case some don't make it the transplant stage.  Most of them do, of course, so then I'm stuck pawning the extras off to friends and family.  So come May, if plants show up on your porch I don't know a thing about it!

Saturday, March 7, 2015


Drood is a retelling of the last five years of Charles Dickens' life.  Dan Simmons takes a lot of license, but also stays truer to the history than I realized.  I mean, a lot of the crazy stuff in the book did actually happen.  Maybe not the ritual cult based on ancient Egyptian practices, but the rest, yeah.

I have to say, this book's cover is what caught my eye. I'd never have picked it up otherwise.  It strikes the perfect mood.  The book is purportedly about Dickens, but the narrator is Wilkie Collins.  Collins is, of course, another famous writer from the Victorian era, and the two men were frenemies for much of their lives.  And, between Dickens and Collins, I've actually read a book by Collins before.  The Moonstone, which more or less launched the English detective novel as a genre.

Wilkie Collins

I still can't decide whether I love or hate Drood.  It has some exceedingly clever moments.  And some boring ones.  It literally is the last five years of Dickens' life, no moment spared.  It's this big buffet full of rich food, and you like everything on the menu but just get so danged tired of eating after a while.

The high points: an opium-addled apparent sociopath for a narrator, an interesting take on the ending to Dickens' unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the finer points of life in London slums, and a high density of very nice turns of phrase and sly witticisms. 

The low points:  the slum visits get old after a while,  the sheer length of the book gets old after a while, the role of Ellen Ternan confuses me, and Caroline's marriage and subsequent return to Collins is gonzo. I mean, what?  Opium can only account for so much here, folks.  

Final call:

I'm not sure if I can recommend this.  Maybe if you are a big fan of Dickens and Collins and the massive tomes they wrote.  But Simmons adds a fair amount of horror, so that limits the audience even further.  Proceed with caution here :)

Friday, March 6, 2015

A Saturday at Home

After a nice bout of travel, it's sometimes good to have a weekend at home.  This Saturday was cold, but clear, and I had been meaning to get my scope out to see what kind of ducks are on the River.

I proposed to Justin that we walk over to the Wrightsville side of the River, where the open water is.  This involves crossing the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge twice and walking up and down the riverfront, making all three legs of the walk great for bird watching.

On the way over, I noticed a nice flock of birds at the ice/water boundary.  My camera proved these to be Common Goldeneye.  As we reached Wrightsville and walked south to the boat accesses, we saw a juvenile Cooper's Hawk looking for a snack in the neighborhood trees.

At the Lemon Street boat access, a pair of Canvasbacks were close by.  Other ducks seen were Hooded Mergansers, Red-Breasted Mergansers, Ring-Necked Ducks, and lots of Buffleheads.  

Canvasbacks, with their long sloping bills, have an unmistakable profile.  I had heard that up to 50 were on the River here, but these two were the only ones visible.

For a cold day, a lot of the birds seemed to just say, "Forget it, I'm acting like its spring."  Titmice were singing their spring songs, Chickadees were flitting all over, and Fish Crows were calling from high in the trees.

Another bird that's coming north, nevermind the snow, is the American Robin.  There were quite a few cavorting along the shoreline.  I have heard that stoneflies are hatching now, making for something of a bonanza by the waterline.  

As we walked back across the bridge near sunset, I noticed another fairly large flock on the River.  Ahhhh, here were all of the Canvasbacks.  That profile is noticeable even at very long distances!

As we finished our walk, the last rays of the sun illuminated the new 1930s-style bridge lights, and brought a small flock of Canada Geese into silhouette in the far background.  What a lovely way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

A South Lake Tahoe Surprise

As we drove south around the west side of the Lake Tahoe from Northstar, we stopped in at Tahoe City for a yummy BBQ lunch.  Then, we made a quick stop at Emerald Bay for a photo op, as it's right beside the main highway, and is one of the iconic viewpoints in Tahoe.

The surprise came when we turned on to Fallen Leaf Road.  We were really just looking for birds or interesting views.  But, we quickly found two coyotes, instead.

Neither coyote was particularly afraid, and this one approached quite closely to our car.  I have to assume they're used to humans from their foraging tactics.  Which is not good, but, I absolutely took advantage of the photographic opportunity!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Tubing at Northstar

Our second big ski resort was Northstar.  Justin's birthday request was to go snow tubing, something that neither one of us has done before.  The "tubing center" at Northstar is in a yurt, a kind of very solid tent based on Mongolian design.  From there you are assigned a tube and told when to be where.

So, yeah, tubing is so much fun!  Northstar grabbed our attention because it had two advantages the other resorts didn't: (1) the bottom of the tubing hill is a big curve, and (2) you don't have to walk back up the hill, they attach your tube to a pulley and haul you up.

At the top of the hill, you can pick whether to go down solo or in a group, and whether you would like to go straight down or start out with a spin.  Spins are way better.

Here's a trip down the hill with Justin:

The tubing hill is wedged in between two ski runs and you could see even more ski lifts and runs.  We joked that it felt like a big white anthill - people zipping around everywhere.  

The snow guns were in full force the whole time we were there.  We talked to a few of the workers, who told us the 2013-2014 winter was a terrible one in terms of skiing, which meant very low snowfall.  Apparently this winter has been even worse, and doesn't bode well for the areas that rely on the snow melt from these mountains.  

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Ski Resorts - Not Just for Skiers!

We visited two different ski resorts on this trip.  The first was called Heavenly, and the base of it was located just across the street from our hotel along the south shore of Lake Tahoe.  Heavenly is accessed by a seriously crazy gondola, and the ride - and the view it allows you - is well worth the wee bit of stomach churning you go through to get there.

As you may have guessed, Heavenly's gondola takes you up a very steep slope.  At the top of this slope, an observation platform gives everyone absolutely tremendous views of the entirety of Lake Tahoe.

Here's a view of the lake with the gondola in action, and below is a panoramic view of the lake itself.  The town of Stateline, Nevada, is neatly laid out in the foreground.

Here's an even wider panoramic taken with my phone:

After the observation platform, you hop back in the gondola and travel along a much gentler slope until you reach the actual ski area.  Which is huge.  I had no idea of the scale these big resorts reach.  I also didn't expect an ear splitting dance party to be underway in the lodge!  

One of the things we quickly noticed is that ski resorts attract true characters.  This guy, who we nicknamed Thor, is fresh off the slopes, and on his way to absolutely killing it on the dance floor.  

The pictures of the Heavenly gondola from the actual gondola cars do not truly give you an idea of the slope.  Our hotel room view gave us a better perspective on just how darned steep it is!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

A Brief Trip to Reno & Tahoe

For Justin's birthday, and also just for fun, we took a long weekend and traveled to a corner of the world that is quickly becoming one of our favorites. Reno, Nevada, and Lake Tahoe, which straddles the Nevada/California line.

Reno has quite a few casinos.  My guess is that it's on par with or slightly smaller than Atlantic City.  While we were there, we stayed at the El Dorado.  Reno is a small town, and like most places, has a few parts that have seen better days.  But there also seems to be a lot of investment in the downtown area.

The Truckee River flows through the downtown, and a newish pedestrian promenade has been built to bring people out and about.  You can see some graffiti tags, so there are still some struggles.

The street banners caught my eye, because they've cleverly incorporated Nevada's shape.  We saw at least three different districts defined by the banners.  Neat stuff!

In Lake Tahoe, a few things grabbed our attention, design wise.  The first is the hotel that was next door to us.  It had an outdoor adventure theme, and the one sidewall was painted with a pretty cool bear graphic designed to look like a topographic map.

Then, we saw these light fixtures in a small brew pub in South Lake Tahoe.  As far as I can tell, the shades are growlers with the bottoms removed.  A nice way to stay true to theme!