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.