Saturday, December 4, 2010

Birding Kaeng Kracharn National Park: A Day Trip with Tony "Eagle Eye" & Co.

Although the primary purpose of my trip to the erstwhile Kingdom of Siam was for dental work, I couldn't let such a long trip to such a wonderful birding location go without an excursion to add a few birds to my life list.  So I booked a day trip to Kaeng Krachan National Park with expert local bird guide Tony "Eagle Eye."

Kaeng Krachan is Thailand's largest national park, encompassing around 45 square kilometers near the border with Burma (aka Myanmar), and is about a 3 1/2 hour drive from Bangkok; it's home to over 300 species of birds, almost all of them potential "life birds" to me (meaning I'd be seeing them for the first time in my life).

As every birder knows, the day often starts before dawn, and facing a long drive from Bangkok meant an even earlier one: Tony picked me up at the hotel at 4:00am local time, and together with his wife and his brother as a driver, we set off for our day trip.  We made a stop for coffee and some breakfast along the way at a 7-11 (yes, they have 7-11s in Thailand), and the sun was just starting to come up as we neared Kaeng Krachan.

The mountainous forests at that hour are alive with sounds that I as a birder from the United States (with a smidgen of birding in the Caribbean and Europe under my belt) to be totally novel, like something out of a movie.  On familiar turf, I rely on birding "by ear" fairly heavily, helping me know which birds are hanging out in the trees and brush... but in Thailand, I was on completely unknown ground.  (I did, later in the day, recognize what had to be a woodpecker's short, high chip--that was nearly the only familiar bird sound of the trip!)  Noisier than the birds were the many gibbons, which made an unearthly racket.

A Dusky Langur
Speaking of the various primates we saw--including, I think, the noisy Black-handed Gibbons--were some Dusky Langurs, one of which I caught on film as it perched right above our car.

From the very start of our morning birding, Tony was an incredible professional.  He'd have his spotting scope out and set up before I even had begun to guess at where the birds in the dense forest canopy were.  Now, I know I'm a middling-good birder at best and have frequently found myself awed by the birding skills of friends like expert Florida birder Adam Kent (and his wife Gina), but I have to say that Tony really, really impressed me with his birding.  We'd be driving along the dirt roads through the park, and he'd signal a stop and almost immediately have a new bird in sight, no matter how thick or dense the forest above us--and he knew them all by ear and name.  I'd studied my copy of Birds of Thailand before the trip to at least familiarize myself with the sorts of things I'd see, but I would have been all day flipping pages without Tony.

As all of the birds would be new to me, I didn't have a list of particulars I just had to see (though to be fair, I kind of did want to see a Flameback, as the similarly-sized and appearing Pileated Woodpecker is one of my personal favorites back home).  So, pretty much from the outset of the trip, I was chalking new life birds on my list--as I explained to Tony, even the most common of birds would be exciting to me for this first time birding in southeast Asia.  Indeed, I recall my first visit to California, when I saw a Western Scrub Jay for the first time and was just mesmerized by a bird which is as common there as the Blue Jay is back here in the eastern US.

An Emerald Dove
In most parts of the United States, we typically see only two or three dove species with any ease, and the most common, the Mourning Dove and the imported Rock Dove (aka the ubiquitous park bench pigeon) are indeed so ordinary so as to be not worth a second glance.  I've indeed never been much interested in doves, outside the one time a Mourning Dove tried to nest in the tree outside our window in Vienna.  Yet in Thailand, the dozens of dove species struck me as beautiful and unique.

Mountain Imperial Pigeon

A White-browed Scimitar Babbler (I think!)
The dense forest coupled with the grey skies of the day made photography a bit of a challenge, necessitating high ISOs (I ended up putting my Canon 50D in "auto ISO" mode, where it could range up to a noise-plagued ISO 1600 if needed) and quick reflexes.  I do have to say that my Canon 300mm f4L coupled with 1.4x teleconverter--my normal "poor man's" birding setup as I've never had the spare change to pick up a 500mm or 600mm lens (any generous patrons out there?!)--wasn't quite up to the challenges of autofocusing in such conditions.  If I could have spared the extra 120mm of focal length, removing the 1.4x teleconverter would have probably helped a lot, as it noticeably slows autofocus on non-1-series Canon bodies.  Actually, I think digiscoping might have been the way to go, given what a great job Tony did getting the scope onto the birds.  But, I got a lot of "record" shots and a few real keepers, too--I was pretty happy overall with my day of bird photography.

A Bulbul--I think it's a Flavescent Bulbul
After a great morning of birding which included spotting a pair of Great Hornbills--massive birds which can weigh up to 9 pounds and which are best described to the non-birder as looking a bit like a Toucan--and some impressive Greater Racket-tailed Drongos among the many other species we saw, we stopped for lunch near a stream.  Tony provided lunch and had brought along a nice selection of fresh fruit, including apples, oranges (which in Thailand are green-skinned), grapes, and some persimmons from China.  We had packets of steamed rice to combine with chicken, egg, or a vegetable mix Tony warned was quite spicy when I reached for some (and it was--but I adore spicy food and had in fact had some super-spicy kaeng khiao wan or green curry for lunch the day before).

Butterflies at a Mineral "Lick"
Appropriate for someone coming from Chateau Papillon, nearby was a spectacular sight: dozens of butterflies gathered at the edge of the water, apparently collecting minerals from the red clay soil (that red clay was too-familiar as well for someone living on the piedmont-side of the fall line in Virginia).

We birded in the lower elevations alongside the streams and rivers throughout the afternoon, and as Tony had promised earlier in the day, we indeed did get to see some Greater Flamebacks--a group of five of them, all told!  Although I didn't get a photo of these beautiful woodpeckers (they were so deep in the foliage it was a challenge making them out at all), getting to see them was in and of itself a wonderful treat.  (The photos in the linked Wikipedia article above really do not do them justice.)

Red-bearded Bee Eater
One of the noisier birds of the day was the beautiful Red-bearded Bee Eater.  I can't describe its sounds, other than to say that much like the Carolina Wren, the bird's volume is far greater than its body size would suggest.

Tony patiently pointed out the locations of several species I had a hard time spotting in the forest, using a green laser pointer to help steer me in the right direction.

Tony "Eagle Eye" (Thanaphat Kinglek) and his wife
In contrast to the morning, the afternoon was fairly quiet--though as I said above, we did see several great birds in the afternoon, including another hornbill, this time an Oriental Pied Hornbill. Though my photo wasn't the best I could have taken, it was again a great spotting for a Thailand birding newbie like me.

Oriental Pied Hornbill
On our way back to Bangkok, we stopped along the Bight of Bangkok to look for the rare and critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper, which winters in southeast Asia.  Just as the sun was about to set, Tony found one amongst the flocks of plovers and other shorebirds and called me over excitedly to his scope.  Though it was too far off for me to attempt to get even a "record" photo of, I still got to see a fantastic species; there are less than 2500 of them left in the world.  The sandpiper's spoon bill is unmistakable.

Plovers along the Bight of Bangkok
After that magnificent spotting, we climbed back into the car for the drive home, stopping for dinner at the ubiquitous 7-11, with some hot dogs and some sort of sweet-filled fried pasty for dessert.  It was a long day of birding, starting at 4:00am and wrapping up around 8:00pm, but a worthwhile trip.  Overall, I added several dozen new species to my "life list," including in addition to those I've pictured and mentioned: the Vernal Hanging Parrot, the Asian Fairy Bluebird, several flycatchers (Tickell's, Verditer, Ferruginous, and Hill Blue, I believe), the Sultan Tit, and the Little Spider-hunter which buzzed me while I was looking for a different bird entirely.  (And many others!)

Sunset over the Bight of Bangkok
It was a great birding expedition, and I cannot stress enough what a great guide Tony "Eagle-Eye" was.  I do hope I can talk Beth into making the long trip to Thailand in the future, and that we can both spend a couple of days birding under Tony's expert eyes.  I'd love to be able to bring our friend and fellow birder Adam Kent along, too, and share the experience with him and put Adam's birding acumen to the test.

Friday, December 3, 2010

One Night in Bangkok, One Afternoon at ... the Dentist?

No, I didn't take singing lessons from Murray Head, but my first night in Bangkok is behind me now, albeit a day late due to the vagaries of modern air travel.  The primary purpose of my trip is a visit to the dentist.

That's right, the dentist.  Back in 2006, I had the shock of a $7500+ dental bill for a few onlays; fast-forward to this year, and my current dentist (different guy, obviously!) gave me the bad news that those platinum-priced onlays were failing and needed to be replaced with crowns.  After a $1800 dentist bill for just two crowns at that dentist (and mind you, that's after my insurance paid $900), I wasn't quite ready to fork out another $3600 for four new crowns!  Factor in that I'd used up my dental insurance for the year already, and we're talking a $4500 expense.

Rewind to 2006 for a moment, when after hearing of the ridiculous cost of those onlays, several friends suggested my money would have been better spent on a trip to Thailand--one of the world's premier "medical tourism" destinations thanks to the quality of their medical system plus the exchange rate between the baht and dollar--where I could have paid for the same work, a flight, and a week at a five-star beach resort to recuperate and still have had several thousand dollars left over.  I kind of laughed at the idea then, but the frequent traveler in me coupled with sticker shock over necessary dental work had me seriously thinking about going to the kingdom of Siam.

As for the costs of a trip, hotels in Thailand are cheap by US standards.  Bought at the advance-purchase rate, a night at a five-star resort hotel like the Millennium Hilton is around $100 (and I've paid nearly double that for a Hampton Inn stateside this year).  Dining can be had for $10 or less per meal for some tasty cuisine.  And airfare isn't ridiculous; I paid a bit over $1000 for my ticket, but that was to get an upgradeable fare which would let me fly in business class instead of economy.  So add up airfare, hotel, meals, and the dentist, and it's still less than what I'd be paying stateside.

Needless to say, weighing the cost of those crowns in the US vs. a trip abroad came down on the side of travel.

After doing much research on clinics, I settled on Thantakit, who despite having a somewhat cheesy Web site (though you should see a few of their competitors--definitely seems like the Thai medical industry hires Web developers who studied site design circa 1995), came highly recommended by both personal experiences of frequent travelers I know as well as with good online reviews.  They are a bit pricier than several of the ubiquitous dental clinics in Thailand--on par with the top-line hospitals in Bangkok--but even at that and a worsened exchange rate with the baht, cost less than half what my out-of-pocket would have been even if I hadn't used up my dental insurance for the year.

Thantakit sent a shuttle van to pick me up at the hotel, and after a 40 minute ride--traffic being atrocious in Bangkok--I arrived at their very classy, clean offices.  Now, no ding on my current US-based dentist, but I'm so used to dental facilities which look like they were build in 1970 that this was quite a pleasant change.

On to the consultation and initial appointment itself: the dentist spoke very good English and took a quick look  at my teeth, took several photos, and then sent me over for x-rays.  The x-ray equipment was the same state-of-the-art computerized system I'd used at the $7500-onlay clinic in Washington, D.C., though to save on my final bill, the dentist only took bitewings and not a full panoramic set.  The clinic took them digitally, instead of on film (this is a nice plus), and rather than having to bite down on an awkward film cartridge holder, one of the technicians positioned the sensor and held it in place during the x-ray--the only strange bit of the procedure, as she's taking a bit much radiation to her hands in the process.

Back to the exam to go over with the x-rays with the dentist.  Now, I'd expected a pressure-sell technique where the dentist would try to get me to go in for pricier options or for more services than I needed; I've had that happen in the US before, and was certain I'd experience it at a clinic whose primary business is dental tourism.  But I was honestly and pleasantly surprised to have the dentist argue for a more conservative, less-expensive treatment plan.  The remaining two one-surface inlays didn't need crowns, he explained, pointing out on the photos and the x-ray that most of their problem was in their surfaces having worn badly.  They simply weren't large enough fillings or in teeth used heavily in chewing to require a crown.

Chalk one up to the good guys.  Here I was willing to fork out a lot more money, and the dentist talked me out of it.

He also explained that for a molar and pre-molar crown, a noble metal covered with ceramic crown was a better option than all-ceramic for strength, and that though all-ceramic looked better, for teeth that far back in the mouth, he didn't see the need.  Yes, I agreed entirely.

On to the treatment.  The dentist went over everything ahead of time which he would be doing (that's more than any dentist I've gone to in the US has done), and explained if I was ever uncomfortable, to raise my hand (as opposed to the instruction to "tell us"--yes, that's what I hear in the US all the time from dentists: "tell us" when you've got a mouthful of dental probes, drills, retractors, and the associated paraphernalia off some sadist's confession-extraction kit in use).

"I'll give you the injection to numb the tooth now," he explained, and there wasn't even a pinch from it.  This may be a strange observation, but in the US, Novocaine injections frequently hurt quite a bit (the exception being the $7500-onlay dentist, who used an automated metering system to deliver the anesthetic--though the added cost was not worth it in his case).  I don't mean the needle itself so much, although that "pinch" the dentist warns of does often hurt.  No, I mean the anesthetic itself, which can send quite a burst of pain down the nearest nerves during the injection.  But this didn't hurt at all; I can only chalk it up to the dentist having a really careful hand and taking his time with the injection (it took a good minute to fully deliver the Novocaine).

Then came that most dreaded of dental implements, the drill.  Beth has described our current American dentist as being "quite fond of his drill," and indeed, I've spent a long afternoon or two in the chair wondering when the heck he'd be finished.  But another pleasant surprise awaited me: the drilling itself took a bit less than an hour for the two crowns plus some work on my inlays, and a filling for a cavity between two of my teeth.  It wasn't painful.  I can't ever describe dental excavation as pleasant, but it certainly wasn't an awful experience, either.

Finally, after taking some molds (downgrading to the noble metal + ceramic crowns necessitated molds vs. the photo-aided CAD/CAM milling I'd had for the past several dental procedures), the dentist put in place a temporary crown--explaining up front and apologizing that the process would smell like hot plastic for a few minutes--and sent me on my way, to come back in a few days and get the final crowns installed.

I'm due back to get those crowns in a couple of days--time needed for the lab to fabricate them to spec--and will report back once I've completed my dental tourism experience.  But so far, I have to say: this was the best dentist I've ever gone to.  Wish I could justify going to Thailand every six months for basic dental care instead of only the big-ticket stuff!

Stranded in Seattle: A Brief Travel Interlude (And Why Trip Insurance Is Only Useful When You Didn't Buy It)

My trip had begun uneventfully enough with a pleasant breakfast flight to Seattle (trading, in the process, the dreary, wet late fall of east coast Washington for the dreary, wet late fall of west coast Washington), a trip to the Seattle Red Carpet Club, and then a glass of champagne onboard my connecting flight to Tokyo-Narita airport.

That's when things went south, and not, unfortunately, with me onboard and in the air.  "You may have noticed the plane is fairly warm," the flight attendant announced.  (Actually, after opening my air vent, it had seemed fine for once.)  "We're having some problems with our air conditioning, and we're going to have to have everyone leave the plane while we try to fix it."


On the way to the Red Carpet Club, I was already on the phone with first United--getting "protected" onto the next day's flights and investigating alternative routings (none available, unfortunately, other than an awful, knee-breaking economy-class booking through Vancouver and Taipei) and trying to clean up the mess made of my hotel reservations.  E-mails off to several folks in Thailand to give them heads-up that I might be delayed.

Monitoring (a far more reliable indicator of flight status than the normal airline web site), I saw flight 875 pick up a 30 minute delay, then 45... then saw it marked "DECISION," meaning that they'd set a time at which the airline would decided whether or not to fly the plane at all.  Ugh.

While I was on the phone with the United 1K international reservations desk (thank goodness for 1K--no wait on hold, and the agents I spoke with were able to give Anglo names like "Jason" without having to mute the phone and snicker, struggling to maintain a poker face from a cubicle in Bangalore) trying to nail down my flight options, I saw the flight go from "decision" to "departs 3:30pm"--only two hours late, but potentially tough on my connection in Tokyo, which was scheduled right at two hours.

Back at the gate, the airline announced they were just waiting for the crew to board, and we'd be on our way.  (Argh!)  The crew finally showed up--why they hadn't just disappeared to the lounge or employee ready room, I'm not sure--but then we got more bad news: the plane's auxiliary power unit (APU) was busted.  Among other things, the APU provides power for onboard systems should one of the plane's main engines fail.  Although Boeing, the plane's manufacturer, was just up the street a bit, we had to instead fly to San Francisco, where United has a maintenance base and where we'd switch planes for one with a functional APU.  (For those wondering, it's safe to fly non-ETOPS routes without an APU--hence the plan to fly to SFO--it's just when you get out over the ocean and more than 60 minutes from any airstrip that you need the insurance.)


But the plane had been loaded with enough fuel to get us to Tokyo, which would put us way overweight for landing in San Francisco.  Obviously, United didn't want to circle SFO and burn or dump fuel, wasting nearly 80,000 pounds of black gold.  Worse, after some checking, apparently Seattle didn't have the necessary tanker pumps to offload fuel safely on the ground, so after a few more minutes, the flight cancelled.  (I'd already seen on that the flight had gone to a scheduled departure time of 10:30am by then--meaning the next morning.  Sigh.)  Off to the Red Carpet Club to pick up hotel and meal vouchers for the night, and to debate whether or not to have the airline simply send me home, declare a "trip in vain," and refund me the cost of the ticket.

The SeaTac Marriott is a decent enough hotel, though I had to pay for internet access--too bad United didn't put me up at the Hilton, where I've got mid-tier status.  Speaking of Hilton, I had to make a new hotel reservation at the Bangkok Hilton, as thanks to the lost day, my plans to fly down to Phuket and stay at the Hilton there, do some birding in the mangrove forests and jungle and along the coast in the land where The Man With the Golden Gun was filmed were now toast.  Not getting to bird in Phuket was disappointing, but the whole point of my trip was dental work (making many of the expenses partially or wholly tax deductible to boot)--fortunately, I was able to reschedule my dental visits before leaving Seattle.

This is where trip insurance would have come in handy.  My non-refundable hotel fares could have been reimbursed, as could my Thai Air flight to Phuket which I'd now undoubtably miss (neither all that pricey, but still frustrating to be out).  Of course, had I spent the $100 or so in insurance, you can bet nothing would have gone wrong on my trip in the least...

I'd have liked to have spent the afternoon and evening exploring Seattle itself--a city I've been to previously only in the form of its main airport.  However, the importance of tying up loose ends for my trip (and dealing with a 9-hour time difference in the process) outweighed my sightseeing needs, and the weather in Seattle coupled with the fact I left my jacket at home not expecting to need it (Thailand is sunny and 80-90 degrees this time of year) kept me holed up at the Marriott.

Finally, the next morning, everything was ready to go, with two UA 875 flights now scheduled to operate from SEA-NRT.  Ours would go out first, at 10:30am, with the regularly-scheduled flight to follow at 1:30pm.    The only loose end remaining was my flight to Bangkok, for which I'd lost my confirmed business class seat due to the rescheduled flights and was now waitlisted (with the check-in agent very discouraging about my chances: "It's completely full.")  I won't bore you with the intricate inner mechanisms of how upgrades work on United, other than to say that between my top-tier status (1K) and the fact my rebooked flight to Bangkok was artificially showing now as being "full fare" (instead of discount) economy, I should stand a decent chance of being at the top of the list, should a business seat open up.  Well, that's to find out in Tokyo, 10 1/2 hours away once we're airborne.

Onward to the land of Siam...

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Culture Shock Is...

Culture shock is:

Getting off a plane after 22 hours of being up in the air (and 22 more in airline delays), arriving midnight local time, and having to look at a paper to see what day it is when my watch, my body, and the local time announced by the pilot all give different answers.

Realizing that the looking at the local papers to find the date doesn't help, because you don't read the language.

Getting off a plane in a country where you not only don't speak a word of the language, but don't speak a word of the entire language family.  At least in Europe, some knowledge of a Romance language goes a long way.

But if Anna Leonowens could do it, I suppose I can, too.  (Yes, that is a hint as to where I've traveled.)

More of this travel adventure to come...

Friday, November 26, 2010

Chateau Papillon has an "English basement," opening out onto the backyard with one of those ubiquitous sliding glass doors.  Or perhaps I should more correctly say had one of those sliding patio doors; one thing that had nagged us since moving in back in 2008 was the door's poor operation, and the fact that even fully open, it was just an inch too narrow to easily get the bird cages out or to bring things like appliances in.

The solution, obviously, was a nice French door, which we could swing out on both sides.  So, when Lowe's ran a 15% off special order doors sale earlier this fall, we went in and picked out a fairly basic Energy Star-rated model sized to replace that leaky, finicky old sliding door.

Installing the new door was actually very easy; the hardest part was getting the old one out.  I'd done such a job caulking the old door last year that the metal flashing around it was quite loathe to come loose, and I managed to destroy my caulk remover in the process (as well as the metal flashing--but we'd no real thought of salvaging it).  With advice from uncle E.C. and his contractor's expertise coupled with physical labor from my dad and sister Brooke, we got the new door in place with the only snag being some 1/4" cedar planks I had to remove around the opening.  Fortunately, the sill was pretty level, and the sides fairly plumb, requiring very little shimming and adjustment--for proper alignment is absolutely critical when installing any door, much less a French door where anything out of square will result in poor operation and often a gap between the two doors instead of a weather-tight seal.

I got the new door insulated (with low-expansion spray-foam) and caulked, as well as locksets installed and keyed to our existing house keys--a nifty feature, that.  There's still work to do; the inside needs some case molding, and the outside a fascia board along the top as well as possibly some casing along the outside edges.  Too, the strike plate for the main lock needs to be aligned better, and the handedness of the lock swapped (as the levers appear "upside-down" as installed).  But so far, so good!

The old door will be going to Habitat for Humanity, assuming they want it, as we got it out without any significant damage.  Now, if we'd only managed to get the door ordered before the submission deadline for the second round of Virginia energy efficiency rebates, we'd have saved about $100 more on the cost of the door.  Nevertheless, we made good use of our energy rebates, between replacing our furnace and a/c unit, buying a high-efficiency washing machine, and getting a home energy audit (the fruits of which, in all the caulking and other insulation work I've done, are seen in each month's energy bills).

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Meal for Thanks

Thanksgiving marks the start of the holiday cooking season for me, and much like Christmas, means an entire day spent in the kitchen--but with rewards well worth it when all the loads of dishes have been done and the leftovers stowed away in the fridge.  And Thanksgiving truly makes for a meal of thanks when shared with family.

This year's menu included several new dishes along with traditional favorites; without further ado, here's what we served at Chateau Papillon for Thanksgiving 2010:

Home-baked garlic, herb, and cheese bread--the first dish I prepared, as I fired up the oven at 8:30am to warm and proof the dough, with the loaves going in around noon.  Other than needing to measure the ingredients by weight, this is an easy bread for any kitchen, and one which can be tinkered with to no end (for example, I change the herbs, add cheese, and replace some of the flour with whole wheat flour)

Fresh green beans, blanched and served in olive oil and salt.  This was the quickest dish to prepare; just snap the ends off the beans, dump in boiling water for 5 minutes, strain, and drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt (kosher salt's big flakes work best).

Sweet potato casserole.  This was one of my "experimental" dishes for the year, despite the traditional theme: in addition to the mashed sweet potatoes, I added a banana, a half pound of cream cheese, a beaten egg, brown sugar, a bit of flour, and seasoned with vanilla, curry powder, garam masala, cinnamon, freshly-ground nutmeg, and allspice... all topped with some marshmallows.  I have to say that it came out fantastically well--the banana and the curry really worked.

Stuffing: the only mostly-store-bought course, as I used a blend of dried cornmeal croutons and cranberry stuffing mix, with the added flavor of a splash of chicken broth and Irish whiskey.  (Everything is better with a little Irish whiskey.)

Baked apples: layers of butter alternated with Granny Smith apple slices, each topped with cinnamon, allspice, Chinese five spice powder, and a dash of cayenne pepper--and with ample brown sugar to keep it sweet, and just a splash of Meyer lemon juice to keep the apples from browning.

Skin-on mashed garlic and goat cheese red potatoes.  Nothing else to be said, really--just good eats.

Brined roasted turkey.  I only get real, homemade oven-roasted turkey twice a year, and look forward to Thanksgiving for the eleven long months after Christmas.  This year, I brined in a mixture of apple cider, kosher salt, brown sugar, candied ginger, black mustard seed, cloves, allspice berries, and peppercorns, then stuffed the turkey with apples, onion, cinnamon, along with some rosemary and sage straight from the garden and a bit of thyme from the supermarket--and a few springs of our curry plant.

The turkey drippings went straight into the saucier my mother-in-law P.A.T. gave me earlier this year, stirred into a butter-and-flour roux with a bit of salt, pepper, thyme, and a splash of Irish whiskey (remember what I said about Irish whiskey a minute ago?).  This was hands-down the best gravy I've ever made.  Let me share a secret to gravy making: start with a roux--melt 2-3 tablespoons of butter and whisk in 2 tablespoons of flour, then cook the resulting paste briefly.  The darker the roux, the more the flavor... but the less the thickening power, so for something with a lot of flavor to begin with like turkey gravy, cook only until the butter develops a nutty aroma.  Then, gradually whisk in the turkey drippings, season, and keep whisking until thickened--you'll let it come to a boil and cook on for a few minutes, then cool.  No canned gravy at Chateau Papillon, and no broth needed with such fantastic turkey drippings.

Chubb Mom made a course of her grandmother's rolls--yes, we already had bread, but rolls are a tradition, and I insisted.

For our resident fish-eating-vegetarian, I baked some Chilean Sea Bass--a course we've had three times in the past week (!!) but nonetheless an absolutely fantastic dish, and one of the simpler ones to make.  Put the fish, skin-side down, into a baking dish, top with mango sea salt and a few pats of butter, and roast at 390 degrees for 35 minutes or so until nice and golden on top.  Voila!

Finally, for dessert, I took advantage of Costco having both Meyer lemons and Cara-cara blood oranges.  In one of the more involved dishes of the day, I  baked a homemade graham cracker crust: I used a package of stale, broken grahams, tossed in the blender with some vanilla sugar and an unhealthy bit of butter--then pressed into the pie pan and baked for 10 minutes or so.  Ten or twelve lemons juiced and zested went into the custard base, along with a half dozen eggs, a lot of vanilla sugar, cornstarch, and some butter for richness... all then put over the bain marie until thickened sufficiently to go into the crust and bake until set.  After it cooled, I topped with homemade whipped cream (heavy cream, vanilla sugar, and Grand Mariner liquor) and blood orange segments.  The orange wedges made a big difference and added a light, juicy texture to each otherwise-heavy bite.  In the end, the pie tasted a bit like a good key lime pie, taking advantage of the Meyer lemon's cross between lemons and tangerines.

My mom put together no-bake pumpkin turtle pie as well at my dad's request, using a store-bought (blasphemous!) graham cracker crust, canned pumpkin, Cool Whip (I offered to fold in my real whipped cream--to no avail), vanilla pudding, caramel sauce, and pecans.  I did, however, manage to slip in some extra seasoning, including Irish whiskey (!), allspice, and Chinese five spice powder.  I couldn't find the mace, or that would have gone in, too.

Overall, I used the better part of six sticks of butter and did five (soon to be six) loads of dishes as I cleaned up as I prepped and cooked throughout the day.  But it was worth it--Thanksgiving does come only once a year, after all.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Millennia on Display: The Splendor of Bryce Canyon

This past Spring, Beth and I made a too-brief visit to southern Utah, where we spent less than 72 hours exploring Goblin Valley and Arches National Park.  That one visit was all it took, though, to inextricably hook me on the red rock desert landscapes of the region, and I couldn't wait until we had a chance to return and see more of this spectacularly beautiful part of the world.  Even the unforgettable experiences of seeing Delicate Arch at sunset and hiking through the hoodoos of Goblin Valley under stormy skies had not prepared me, though, for the sheer majesty and deep, soul-moving beauty that is Bryce Canyon.

We arrived a bit after sunset after a day at Zion National Park (the drive up taking longer than expected due to construction delays), and though I'd hoped to beat the setting sun there, even the sight of the shaded amphitheater full of hoodoos was enough to bring a lump to my throat.  There simply are not words to properly express what I felt upon that first glimpse of Bryce Canyon; it was a uniquely moving, almost spiritual experience that took my breath away.

Sunset Point along Bryce Canyon's Rim
Viewed from above, the canyon drops off sharply from its edges, a vertical distance of over 1,000 feet--yet so much of the canyon is not open space, but rather is filled with towering rock formations: fins and hoodoos, arrayed in a splendor of pink, orange, red, and white stone.

Millions of years of history are on display in the high desert country of southern Utah—beautiful eons recorded in the layers of sandstone revealed by the erosive hands of Father Time in the regions mesas, canyon walls, buttes, and hoodoos.  Freeze and thaw: with each cycle, water penetrates more deeply into the rock.  Rain and runoff.  Dust and sand caught in the whisperings of the wind.  Uplift from vast geological forces below, pushing and folding the land.  Father Time and Mother Nature shape a long, inexorable course  across the landscape.

Beth stands near the edge of Bryce Canyon
Atop Bryce Canyon, rainfall and snow drains off into the Great Basin, never to see the shores of the Pacific.  Step a few short feet out over the thin air—and take a rather longer descent to the bottom of the canyon’s fairyland, and precipitation runoff joins the Colorado River watershed, passes through the Grand Canyon and (absent the interference of man) eventually reaches the Gulf of California.  Today, of course, the Colorado’s waters are stretched thin by thirsty California and irrigation of cropland in an area whose sole agricultural fault lies in its lack of precipitation--but regardless, the rim of the canyon marks a drainage divide, and runoff from precipitation along the rim actually has little contribution to the rock formations seen.

Instead, the Claron formation--rock up to 55 million years old--coupled with the Paunsaugunt Fault, where the western side has fallen relative to the east by around  2,000 feet--are responsible.  Differential erosion stripped away the white member of the Claron formation, exposing the pink below to more rapid erosive forces.  Where siltier sedimentary stone would have weathered into low badlands, the higher limestone and conglomerated content of Bryce's Claron formation protect (relatively) some of the rock, yielding the towering fins and hoodoos filling the amphitheater.  Likewise, smooth fractures in the stone (characteristic of the Claron formation) further define the channels of erosion's forces.

About 4 miles into the Fairyland Canyon hike
There's no better way to observe the full breadth of geological forces at work in forming Bryce Canyon than to descend down into its amphitheater--you'll certainly appreciate old Ebeneezer Bryce's declaration of it being "a hell of a place to lose a cow"--and that's just what Beth and I did on a grueling 8+ mile hike from Fairyland Point.  But that's a tale for another blog post; for now, simply enjoy the splendor of what I've found to be the single most beautiful and spectacular of our national parks, and ponder the millions of years of history on display there.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Transforming Chateau Papillon's Landscape: Building a Wildlife Sanctuary & How You Can, Too!

Videographers Alison Fast and Chandler Griffin
Not too long ago, I blogged about some of the steps Beth and I have taken to make over our yard at Chateau Papillon into a more natural landscape and a habitat attractive to all sorts of native wildlife (and intend to expound upon those topics, later, too).  We signed up for the Audubon at Home program and made our yard wildlife-friendly--and now, we're playing host to the National Audubon Society and volunteering our yard to appear in a video they're producing about how everyone can work to help birds year-round from their own homes.  Even if you're not a first-responder scrubbing clean the oiled birds of the Gulf after an environmental disaster like we recently witnessed, you can indeed still play a very important part in providing healthy habitat for migratory birds.

So when the call came out yesterday from the local Northern Virginia Audubon chapter's environmental education coordinator requesting help in putting together a video about the Gulf response, I jumped right on board; even though Beth and I typically are too busy to volunteer much of our time, this was simply too good of an opportunity to pass up, helping get out the message that everyone can play a role.

I remember how, shortly after the magnitude of the BP Macando well disaster became known, I rushed over to my computer and started pricing flights to New Orleans and to the Gulf panhandle of Florida.  I wanted to be there, instead of sitting helpless here at home.  Just thinking about the tragedy and its effects upon wildlife got me both angry and teared-up at the same time.  I had to do something!

But when I spoke to a friend in Florida--Adam Kent, current President of the Florida Ornithological Society--Adam gently suggested that most volunteers, though meaning the best, would have to be constantly supervised and guided to make sure they didn't do more harm than good (stepping on a threatened tern's nest, for example).  Instead, Adam said, we should be doing things at home like putting up nests specifically for species  around our home, like Eastern Phoebes (platforms sheltered high up near the eaves would be best, he said), and helping the silly Carolina Wrens who'd chosen to nest in our mailbox (we put in a second mailbox and labeled the two so the postman wouldn't drop mail in on top of the eggs).

Indeed, the contributions we can make from home and in our own backyards are actually more important than being on the front lines of response to an environmental disaster--more of us can participate, and over a larger area and much longer span of time.  Keep in mind, too, that what we do in our back yards has a much larger effect when summed across the country as a whole, and a more lasting one: we can change the environment for the better throughout our lives, not just on a single weekend or two of volunteering in the Gulf.

And the backyard contributions need not be something which consumes all of one's time or resources, either.  Though Beth and I certainly spend a huge amount of our own time and energy in our "outdoor living room," even small gestures can make a difference.  For example:

  • Out in the yard with the family or pets?  Spend a few minutes looking for and removing invasive plant species, which crowd out natives and often don't provide as good of food or shelter for wildlife.  Beth and I have almost gotten our Japanese stilt grass under control simply by pulling up a few handfuls at a time whenever we're in the yard.
  • Put out a feeder or two, and keep it stocked with black oil sunflower seeds--you'll pay a bit more for black oil sunflower, but it's generally a better seed and in our experience attracts less non-native "pest" birds (like House Sparrows and European Starlings).  Over time, you'll find yourself adding additional feeders to attract a variety of birds; we have thistle for finches, a sugar water feeder for hummingbirds, suet cake feeders for woodpeckers (including one designed specifically for larger species like the Pileated), and a flat tray feeder the Mourning Doves and Blue Jays love.
  • Plant and encourage native species suited for your terrain and conditions.  They'll do well, and you'll be amazed at how much less fertilizer and pesticide is needed to keep them healthy.  Native plants attract a wide variety of native insects and serve as food and habitat for all sorts of wildlife.
  • Add a water feature; it can be as small as a bird bath.  Our little pond has been a great habitat for native frog species (who found it on their own--build it, and they will come) as well as an attraction for our many backyard birds.
  • Collect water from the gutters in rain barrels and use it in the yard instead of the hose.
  • Create a "brush pile" somewhere in your yard instead of bundling up all those twigs and sticks for pickup at the curb.  Wrens and several other species of birds will thank you.
  • Encourage neighbors to keep cats indoors!
  • Many areas have free mulch available--make use of it.  We've used our locally-available mulch to help build up a layer of rich soil around the yard and to reclaim some of our lawn into new, more natural habitats: meadow in the sunnier spots, filled with bird-, bee-, and butterfly-friendly native wildflowers; forest floor in the shadier areas. 

There are countless more things you, too, can do; the list above covers only a few of the steps we've undertaken over the past two years in our back yard.  The Audubon Society of Northern Virginia offers several resources with more information for those living in the Washington, D.C., area, and the National Audubon Society's Audubon at Home site offers tips and a starting point for citizens nationwide.

Anyway--on the video shoot itself: the videographers arrived, along with National Auduon Society Gulf response communications coordinator Finley Hewes, around 7:30am, having flown up from New Orleans the night before.  They'd been working hard on the bulk of the video, from the beaches of the Gulf shores to trips out onto the water to see first-hand the front-line response to the oil disaster, and would be finishing up with the footage of what people can do in their own back yards.  We took a lot of footage, showing us walking around the yard, pointing out the native plants and their benefits to wildlife, and then spent time on an interview.  I'm sure most of the footage will end up on the cutting room floor (after all, we're just the closing anecdote to the video), but I'm still looking forward to seeing the finished product and will post a link to it as soon as the National Audubon Society folks put it up online.

I think we really conveyed the message that there are indeed things that we as individuals can do every day to help out; I'll post another blog entry later spelling out in detail some of what we shared and how those tips can help you, too, take care of the birds and other wildlife around you, no matter where you are.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Weekend Scones & More Cuisine de Chateau Papillon

Poppyseed Cake with Caramel Orange-Apricot Rum Glaze: YUM!

As long-time readers of this blog know, we have a tradition at Chateau Papillon for "weekend scones": breakfast or brunch at least once a week involving home-cooked treats to be enjoyed with a leisurely mug of coffee or espresso.  The sweets need not actually be scones (though cherry-vanilla scones are amongst my favorites); anything from donuts to tea cakes to bagels count, so long as they're homemade.

Our busy schedules had precluded much more than convenience cooking (pasta and sauce, for example) and take-out the past several days, but this weekend I made sure to take the time to put together a new "scone": a poppyseed cake served with a caramel orange-apricot rum glaze.

The cake recipe followed loosely one from my favorite baker's cookbook, Bo Friberg's Professional Pastry Chef.  The basic, very rich batter consisted of egg yolks (5), sugar (a lot), butter (2 sticks), sour cream, cake flour, leaveners (both baking soda and powder), and poppy seeds (nearly an entire jar, and at that half what the recipe called for!).  Add to that, via folding-in, a meringue base of beaten egg whites (6), vanilla, and more sugar. We often lack some of the more esoteric pans Friberg calls for (e.g. a Gugelhupf) and make do with an old but tried & true tube pan--which is actually what this recipe called for.  Friberg's recipe did claim you could also make muffins from the batter; I suppose he's right, though thanks to the creaming method of "assembly," the finished consistency is somewhere between a traditional cake and a muffin--more moist and dense than what I expect when it comes to muffins.

For finishing, Friberg called for a basic orange glaze, which I used as a suggestion in name only and improvised significantly: one cup of orange juice, a cup of sugar, a cup of apricot preserves, and a generous helping (say, 1/2 cup) of dark rum, boiled and reduced in the saucier my mother-in-law sent as a "no particular occasion" gift a few weeks ago to about a cup of caramelized goodness.

I still prefer Friberg's walnut cream cake, but the poppyseed was a nice change of pace, and certainly did not go to waste uneaten at Chateau Papillon!

The weather was so nice over the weekend that we not only had our breakfast out on the patio, but our dinner as well.  With the earlier-every-day sunset, I didn't get a good photo of the fruits of our Sunday supper efforts, unfortunately, so my description will have to do.  For the main, I roasted some fresh wild-caught sockeye salmon with a bit of olive oil, sea salt, and dried dill--simpler and easier than even the grill-smoked salmon we typically enjoy over the summer.  I combined the leftover sour cream from the morning's cake batter with some potatoes, goat cheese, and garlic to create one side; the other was an interesting squash we came across at the grocery store, sliced in half and baked with a sprinkle of salt and some olive oil.  We'd never had "buttercup squash"--butternut, yes, but this looked more like a larger acorn squash than anything else--and I have to say that it was exceptionally well-named: the baked vegetable tasted like it had been richly buttered through-and-through, despite having only a touch of olive oil and not even a hint of dairy applied.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Transforming Chateau Papillon's Landscape: Building a Wildlife Sanctuary (Part One)

Here at Chateau Papillon, we've been hard at work on the outdoors as much (if not more so) than the indoors.  When we first moved in, the lot was something of a blank slate, outside of the wonderful mature trees surrounding the yard.  We waited through the frustrations of a short sale largely due to the yard's potential, as it backed up to Fairfax Villa Park and offered the certainty of attracting a large variety of birds and other wildlife.  Since moving in, we've planted dozens of native trees and shrubs, have reclaimed large sections of drab lawn into more naturalized habitat, and have chalked up a list of 54 different bird species to-date.  So when the Northern Virginia Audubon Society announced the "Audubon at Home" wildlife sanctuary certification program, we thought to ourselves, "We're already 95% of the way there!"

Our Habitat Certification Sign!
The Audubon at Home Wildlife Sanctuary program encourages everyone--from schools, businesses, and churches to individual homeowners--to treat their property like a wildlife habitat, by taking steps to naturalize, bring in more native plant species, and provide food, shelter, and nesting habitat to our most important and needy species of native wildlife.  The program stresses environmentally-friendly landscape management practices, from reducing and managing runoff to cutting back on pesticide and fertilizer usage, all of which are important but often-overlooked adjutants to caring for native flora and fauna.

We recently completed our certification, and looking back, have come a long way at Chateau Papillon in the just-shy-of two years we've spent here.  Though I could fill up several posts with just the "before & after" shots, a few do bear inclusion for comparison's sake today:

Backyard, in June, 2008 (before)
When we first found the listing for Chateau Papillon, the back yard was one of the biggest draws, but as you can see above, not a whole lot was going on beside the shade from the mature trees along the periphery.  We didn't do that much work outside immediately after buying and moving in over Thanksgiving in late 2008; we had too much to do inside even if the weather had been more amenable outdoors.  After a visit to Merrifield Garden Center in the early spring of 2009, we came away with a lot of ideas in our head for what to do to transform our yard and make it "ours," along with five dogwoods and a river birch to plant.

Back yard, September 2010 (after)
That first winter was fairly mild, as was the start of springtime, but we already knew one of our first challenges was going to be runoff management: after a series of March rains, we had a swamp and a river running through it in no time flat.  Just about any rainstorm left similar signs of its passing upon the yard.

Ile du Papillon?  Spring showers make for puddles and rivers in the back yard.
We have tackled that problem in stages.  The first phase is visible, in fact, in the photo above: mulching the yard and replacing grass which simply doesn't get enough sun and which doesn't thrive atop our yard's densely-packed clay.  We undertook several courses of sheet mulching, recycling many of our moving boxes into a layer of weed-choking cardboard atop which we spread several inches of leaf mould and then shredded hardwood mulch obtained free-of-charge from Fairfax County's recycling center.  (In fact, we've to-date trucked in more than 40 cubic yards of free mulching material--worth a few thousand dollars if bought by the bag from the neighborhood Home Depot.)  Over time, the sheet mulch breaks down, forming a layer of rich, well-drained soil atop the hard-packed clay.

We created mulched zones originally as "natural areas" in the shadiest parts of our yard, recreating a more natural "forest floor" beneath the mature trees.  Just the mulch alone has significantly improved our runoff management; now only the most intense of monsoons produces any "rivering" in the yard, and we've extended the mulched areas significantly across the back yard and into a large section of the front as well.  Where before a solid rain meant a muddy morass that persisted for days, we now have rich soil and mulch cover which can be walked upon within minutes of a storm's passing.

Beth and Chance Plant a Dogwood
Next, though sometimes our choices haven't been perfect, we've planted stuff.  Lots of stuff.  Starting with those five dogwoods and a river birch, we have gradually begun to define a mid-story of smaller trees and shrubs beneath the towering mature trees edging the yard.  Those first trees have been joined by many more--four more river birches, an American redbud, a pussy willow, two hawthorns, two cypresses, and numerous self-seeded tulip poplars and a mulberry.  Native shrubs by the truckload have joined the party: common ninebark (one of our favorites); more than a half-dozen red osier dogwood shrubs (beautiful red stems in the winter); American and inkberry hollies galore (and one English holly hybrid for contrast); Virginia juniper; native hemlocks; several different native Viburnums; several blueberries and a blackberry; two sweetshrubs; and several more exotic junipers.

That doesn't count all the bulbs, wildflowers, ferns, and perennials we've added, which include meadow-loving tickseed (coreopsis), purple coneflowers, Black-eyed Susan, wood aster, cardinalflower, columbine, violets, foamflower, and much more.  Outside the hostas (requisites for a shade-covered yard!) and several of the bulbs, pretty much everything is a native species, too.

Most yards really shouldn't be oceans of neatly-cut grass, anyway; grass requires a lot of fertilizer and pesticide application--bad for many reasons, including runoff--and isn't all that great from a biodiversity standpoint, either.  In fact, wide swathes of green lawns weren't in fashion in the United States until post-World Wars, when troops brought back the idea from Europe.  Habitats like meadow (filled with wildflowers and native tall grasses), wetland, and forest edges are much better homes to wildlife and better for our environment.

More to come: the Audubon Habitat at Home program is not just about the new plantings, but about control of invasive species, too.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Richard Nixon: Portrait of a Socialist

Ranting that our country is hurtling toward "socialism" is the current bugaboo of the political right--and, indeed, given socialism by definition lies on the left side of the political spectrum, one can understand their opposition to such philosophies by their very nature.  Yet for all the gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair by Tea Party demagogues over our imminent collapse into some quasi-Marxist state, I have to ask: is the agenda of the current administration and Congress actually all that "socialist," or has the political right merely moved itself so far to the extreme end of the scale so that everything else looks to be to the left of Stalin by comparison?

Photo from National Archives via Wikimedia Commons
Without delving into each specific issue in detail, I offer this observation: one Richard M. Nixon, the 37th President of the United States and a stalwart of the Republican party, pursued and implemented policies across his administration which are far more to the left, and steered the country on a path certainly more "socialist," than President Obama, Senator Reid, or Representative Pelosi (the unholy trinity in the eyes of the right) have ever dreamt of.  Even bathing in the blood of the puppies they've sacrificed to achieve their demonic goals, those three latter-day Stalinists pale in comparison to the achievements of Tricky Dick--who last I saw had an (R) in parenthesis after his name, not a (D).  Nor are these policies cherry-picked; they represent some of the biggest and most lasting achievements of President Nixon's time in office and cover broad swathes of policy from the economy to the environment to foreign policy.

Take, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency, which to modern conservatives is an anathema to the free market principles they advocate and an agency that exists solely to obstruct the consumer-minded engines of productivity that are this nation's corporations.  The current GOP senatorial nominee from Nevada has called for the EPA's outright eradication on numerous occasions, and the words of the recently-erstwhile GOP nominee for Vice President sum up the conservative zeitgeist, labeling it the "Economic Prevention Agency."

A quick consultation of the history books (references few seem to keep on hand these days) will reveal exactly who proposed and signed into law the EPA, and it wasn't some liberal, starry-eyed socialist like FDR or Lyndon Johnson.

Let's not stop with the EPA, the Clean Air Act, or the Federal Water Pollution Control Act.  Nixon didn't just steer us toward socialism by becoming a friend to the environment.  No, he embraced such leftist notions as workplace safety and the welfare of the nation's employees with the creation of OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.  And--the horrors!--he pushed his socialist, anti-business agenda to protect babies and small children with the creation of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, with its regulations over swimming pools and cribs and corporate-profit-damning product recalls.

The list of "socialist" agencies and regulations crafted and implemented under Nixon's watch is a healthy one, unless you're one of the demagogues lathering up crowds against "the gubermint" and its efforts to seize your tax dollars and  turn them into handouts.  Taking the US dollar off the gold standard, long a complaint of conservatives?  Check.  Imposing a national speed limit (n.b. something I can't forgive, myself)?  Check.  Increased spending on Medicare, Social Security, and food and welfare programs?  Check.

Since taking office, President Obama has caught much grief over even the suggestion that mega-bank executive salaries might be excessive, and that those banks who received taxpayer bailouts ought not spend our public moneys on throwing yet another party in Vegas or Bermuda.  Yet Nixon exercised authority and implemented national price and wage control boards, freezing pay raises and dictating product prices across the country.  Obama is a socialist, say the neoconservative punditry and body politic, for even hinting that rewarding utter failure with lottery-payout-sized bonuses seems askew.  Yet Nixon exercised control nationwide over salaries and prices, which quite arguably stands as one of the most socialist (and authoritarian) measures ever taken by the US government with regards to the conduct of private business.

And let's not forget "Obamacare," the castrated-by-compromise effort to help ensure every US citizen have access to adequate health care and current favorite invective of the right.  Nearly forty years ago, President Nixon called for national health care, a plan which would have mandated employer-provided insurance as well as a federal plan anyone could pay into and join.  (Ironically, Ted Kennedy was one of the leading opponents of Nixon's health care reform plan.)  Nixon failed to achieve his vision of universal, national health care, indeed, but one wonders what those Republicans shouting "socialist!" and "keep the government out of my health care!" today would have thought of an obviously more ambitious (and yes, socialist) plan coming from one of their own.

Lastly, rhetoric from the right today constantly demonizes President Obama for even entertaining the merest daydream of using diplomacy rather than the sword that is the US military might to deal with our nation's enemies.

Yet who is remembered for being the only President who could go to China, and whose efforts resulted in a real detente with not only with China, but to a thawing of relations with the Soviet Union as well (who feared a potential Sino-American alliance might arise out of such diplomacy)?

Yes, that socialist, Richard Nixon.  And don't forget, Tea Partiers, that Nixon cut defense spending significantly (from over 9% of GDP to under 6%) and got us finally out of that quagmire in Vietnam.

You'd think from the current rhetoric from the right that Nixon was a panty-waisted pinko whose sole goal was to transfer corporate wealth to our commisar enemies.  Yet in his day, he was a Republican opposed vehemently by liberals at every step of the way.  It's simply a sad statement of how far to the right the Tea Party, neoconservatives, and even mainstream Republicans today have moved from where their party once stood.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Chateau Papillon Bird #54: Red-breasted Nuthatch

It's fall migration season, and that means the chance to see all sorts of birds winging their way southward.  Beth added bird #54 to Chateau Papillon's list this afternoon with the sighting of a Red-breasted Nuthatch who had stopped to visit our feeders.

I got an e-mail from Beth asking where the Sibley's guides were, followed by an excited, insistent note that she'd found a new bird for the yard.  When I got home from work, I grabbed my camera and came out to sit and birdwatch with the hope of seeing what would be a life-bird for me: I've listed the smaller, similarly-marked Pygmy Nuthatch before from a west-coast trip--and of course the much-more-common White-breasted Nuthatch--but a Red-breasted would be a new bird for me.

The early evening provided some great birding, with appearances by a Pileated Woodpecker, several Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, an Eastern Phoebe, and all sorts of the "usual suspects" of the backyard scene.  And yes, I did get get to see the Red-breasted Nuthatch several times, and even snapped a couple of decent photos despite the dwindling light.  The evening was not without casualty, though; while I sat and waited, some feathered friend far above decided to make a deposit upon my shoulder.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Hiking in Chugach and the Return Home (Part Four of my Alaska Adventure)

My all-too-brief visit to Alaska wrapped up with stops to hike several sections of Chugach State Park, after I spent my first day there with a drive down the Seward Highway and a visit to Exit Glacier, and began my second day birding after the return to Anchorage.  Alaska is a hiker's heaven, with trails ranging from easy strolls to multi-day treks across the vast wilderness, and though I didn't have the time (or equipment) to engage in the latter, I still wanted to get in a bit of hiking before heading back to Chateau Papillon.  Armed with Best Easy Day Hikes Anchorage, I headed into the wilds!

Chugach State Park encompasses nearly a half million acres--making it the third-largest state park in the United States and the largest in Alaska.  (I've been to the second-largest, California's Anza-Borrego Desert, too, which is a fantastic destination in its own right.)  The park wraps around the Anchorage area along the Chugach Mountains to the east and offers access to dozens of trails from 28 trailheads.

My first stop was in the park's northern section, where I opted for an easy hike to Thunder Bird Falls.  Located about 15-20 miles northeast of Anchorage along the Glen Alps Highway, the two-mile hike to Thunder Bird Falls travels through some beautiful birch woods hugging a steep gorge above Thunder Bird Creek.  In addition to the hike to the falls themselves, another trail descends to the creek far below.

Again I ran into a group of tourists smoking--and again I have to ask: when out amidst all this pristine nature, why must you light up?  (Not to mention that smoking in the woods is incredibly reckless and has started more than one forest fire.)    I really don't have anything against smokers--and have several in the family, in fact--but at the same time, I don't choose to smoke, so I shouldn't be forced to inhale your smoke, either, particularly when I'm out trying to enjoy nature.  Sorry, I'll step off my soapbox now.

I had originally planned to take a more extensive hike upon Bird Ridge overlooking the Turnagain Arm, but that uber-steep hike requires 4-6 hours and covers a grueling 3400-foot change in altitude over just over two miles.  By contrast, the healthy hike to the "T.V. tower" on the mountainside behind the home I grew up in ascends only 750 feet or so over a course of two miles, and the sweat-inducing climb to Delicate Arch in Utah gains just under 700 feet in a mile and a half.  All in all, my calves think I made the right decision.

After Thunder Bird Falls, I drove back down toward Anchorage proper to pay a visit to an even easier hike in Chugach's "Hillside" trail system; namely, the Anchorage Overlook trail located just below the popular Flattop Peak.  The drive up to the Glen Alps trailhead climbs steeply over the Anchorage basin into the foothills of the Chugach Mountains; along the way, I spotted my first bear of the trip.  A young black bear just waltzed out into the street.  I didn't stop for a photo, though; even a bear so small I thought it at first a large dog seemed something to drive on by without attracting its attention.

A brief hike and some panoramic photos (which I've yet to assemble), and then it was time to head to the airport for the long flights home.  A red-eye from San Francisco always seems like a good idea until you're on it, particularly when you get a glass of red wine spilled in your lap midway through the flight.  At least United gave me a $200 certificate for future travel for that experience; my trip ended up in the black thanks to that bit of discomfort.

One thing I discovered on this trip which I never would have suspected beforehand: I'm a desert boy at heart.  Don't get me wrong; Alaska was a fantastic place to visit and a trip I surely do want to repeat on a longer scale, with Beth along so we can share the experience.  It's filled with some of the most scenic and pristine natural beauty I've ever witnessed.  And I don't mean I would want to live in the desert, either; I like forests and mountains a bit too much for that, and a beach house would be awfully nice.  In terms of sheer majesty, in some sense which speaks directly to my heart, though, deserts have a special essence which transcends simple natural beauty.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Sunset over the Turnagain Arm and Searching for Birds (Part Three of My Alaska Trip)

Daylight that began before a 3:30 am sunrise and a drive down the Seward Highway after breakfast still shined down brightly as I wrapped up a visit to Exit Glacier in the early evening made, making for a long but full day.  The sun proper came out during my stop for lunch, driving away the pesky, thick clouds which had covered the Kenai Peninsula since my arrival in Alaska, and this gave me the chance to revisit several spots on the drive back up to Anchorage.

I had even marked a couple of spots on my GPS on the drive down, hoping for just the break in the clouds that I got: the water lily-covered pond above, for example, overlooked by a short boardwalk, as well as the reflecting lake I featured in the lead-off of Part One.

Turnagain Arm and Kenai Mountains

Though there was something magical about the way the snow-covered mountains threaded through and blended together with the low-lying cloud cover, direct sun made for a nice contrast and yielded some photos I'm really pleased with.  Photographers should definitely use the many pull-outs along the Seward Highway; don't be shy about stopping!  Nearly every spot I parked I shared with others who had paused in their drives, too, to enjoy the fantastic scenery.

You'd think with such a short schedule--less than 72 hours on the ground all said and done--I'd have planned out every single moment of my trip, but aside from having a working set of several broad possibilities and suggestions (such as driving to Seward and visiting Exit Glacier), I didn't go into the trip with a set agenda.  This gave me a bit of added flexibility to detour as desired, and with the sun out, I decided to pay another glacier a visit with a drive out to Portage Glacier.

Portage Lake and Glacier (glacier, middle-right; n.b. tiny iceberg, fall right)
Portage Lake and Glacier are a short drive off the Seward Highway about 40 miles south of Anchorage.  Though quite scenic in and of itself, the lake is depressing, too, because in the not-too-distant past, the edge of Portage Glacier extended all the way into the lake (which was itself created by glacial activity), and calved icebergs and slush spread across the entire surface of the waters.  Yes, I know my visit was in the height of the summer, but it's still disappointing to see but one tiny iceberg--just visible to the far right of the lake's horizon in the photo above--and to overhear other visitors musing about the past state of the glacier in their own lives.  The edge of the glacier itself is obstructed from view from the visitor's center today due to its degree of retreat.

Incidentally, the town of Portage no longer exists; the 1964 Good Friday earthquake (the second-strongest in recorded history at the time!) and the resulting tsunami leveled the community entirely.  Though the Seward Highway and Alaska Railroad were rebuilt, Portage was not.

My last few stops on the drive back were to capture a few near-sunset photos.  Alaska doesn't typically offer the sort of brilliantly-hued sunsets you'll find in the desert or the tropics, but nonetheless I found something in them worth remembering.

You'd think that at 10:30 pm on a Sunday night that Anchorage would be a pretty dead place, but not so!  I guess the midnight sun keeps people up, as things were pretty busy at a time I would expect folks to be turning in as preparation for the start of the upcoming work week.  I hadn't thought I'd find much in the way of food that late on a weekend, so I hit a drive-through, but as I pulled in to my hotel's parking lot, I noticed a seafood restaurant next door still packed with customers and almost tossed the bag of Mickey D's--only the knowledge of the short night ahead kept me to my meal of burger & fries.

Despite my recent focus on landscape photography, my true calling is still capturing digital feathers, and though I had added at least a couple of "life list" spottings (Varied Thrush and Harlequin Duck) as a birder during the trip, poor light and tides had left me with very few professional-quality bird photos--and I'd yet fairly high hopes of sighting what otherwise should be some easily-achieved lifers in the loon species which should have been still on their breeding grounds throughout Alaska.  One location my Birder's Guide to Alaska called out specifically for easy July loon spottings was Goose Lake, a small park on the University of Alaska - Anchorage campus.

Fairy Woods at Goose Lake
Unfortunately, the early morning found Goose Lake devoid of even its eponymous bird, but despite my disappointment at the lack of avian species, I did hike around the heavily-used bike & jogging path a bit--and found this beautiful little vignette fit for a fairy court a few feet back into the woods.

I'd visited many of the best birding spots in the Anchorage vicinity, from Potter Marsh to Westchester Lagoon  with ultimately mixed results.  No absolute-keeper bird photos during the trip so far, and a couple of birds I'd been sure I would see remained unfound as well.  That's the unfortunate downside to such a brief trip: birds move around, and if the weather and tides aren't quite right, they might be rather hard to find.  Still, I added a half-dozen life list birds all told, including the aforementioned Harlequin Duck and Varied Thrush alongside Boreal Chickadee, one of the Ptarmigan species, Red-necked Grebe, and a couple of different gulls.

Still, I had planned a bit more hiking, this time in a couple of areas of Chugach State Park, the half-million acre preserve girding the eastern edge of the Anchorage area.  My hikes to Thunderbird Falls and to the Glen Alps overlook over 2,000 feet above the Cook Inlet will wrap up my brief Alaskan getaway, next...