Dogs as Our Teachers

A few weeks ago I was invited to add a “topic” to a new website which has been designed to help authors reach more readers and readers peruse more books. The topic had to be unique to me. I also had to provide distinctive reviews of five books I’ve read that fit my topic.

The site is free (forever) for readers and authors. I liked the founder’s mission, which includes an understanding of the current challenges of marketing books in a increasingly shifting realm of publication. As a self-published author who also had two books published by a “real” publisher, I can attest to the fact that both scenarios can be very challenging to achieve. Marketing and sales require skills that, at least for me, are way outside my expertise and general disposition. I also learned a long time ago, that a publisher doesn’t necessarily do the work required to help a book reach its fullest potential. Self publishing has its own set of seemingly insurmountable challenges. The founder of Shepherd.com seems to have a keen understanding of those hurdles and a vision to help alleviate some of them while also meeting his goals as an entrepreneur.

The topic I created was “Best books about dogs as our teachers.” That is the underlying theme of my book, Shamaron: Dog Devoted.

I don’t know if there is a design to our incredible existence on this planet that we share with millions of other lifeforms. Regardless of plan or mere chance; I would say that dogs exist to help us become better versions of ourselves, to save us, comfort us, guide us, humor us and most of all, unconditionally accept us. At Shepherd.com, each author is allowed one topic to claim. I chose this one because I believe it best describes the books I have written as well as future works I may produce.

I encourage you to check out Shepherd.com. It has a unique style which allows you to jump from topic to topic and learn about undertakings (and the people who write about them) that you may have never considered exist. I know that happened to me.

Here’s the link: https://shepherd.com/best-books/dogs-as-our-teachers

Merry and Bright

I’ve been away from blogging for a while as I was feverishly working on a culinary craft project / Christmas presents. Yesterday, after a few weeks of producing my treats, the boxes were sealed and shipped. I checked the tracking numbers this morning and everything is en route. Whew!

That’s a big “Whew” for me because I don’t even send Christmas cards. Really. I’m one of those people. I suppose I would score very badly on the “makes and maintains relationships” test. I’m old enough now, that I no longer have to explain why I am the way I am (not even to myself – and I am always my worst critic.) There were years when I bought a box or two of lovely greeting cards, but they were never mailed. Eventually, I realized that there was a very small chance I would get around to sending them, so I stopped fooling myself. Still, I harbored a bit of shame about that character flaw until, well, I didn’t.

I’m expecting the handful of folks to whom I’ve sent a box of homemade goodies to experience the emotion behind that curious word, “gobsmacked” when they see my name on the return address label of a box that will arrive not only on time, but ahead of the typical rush. It’s not that I want to astound anyone by my behavior, but I suspect a few individuals will cock their heads in wonder when the box shows up. More on the contents of those boxes in a later post…

I suppose another oddity about me is that, while I am a very private person who rarely has guests over for a cup of holiday cheer let alone a full-on Christmas dinner, I still enjoy decorating for the holidays. Typically, nobody sees these little delights that I sprinkle around our home. Well, of course Robert (my husband) sees them, and I think that he actually may find some joy when he turns a corner and sees my inspired moments. Make your loved ones smile – that should be a goal for everyone, right?

Here’s a little collection of a sweet fox sitting alongside a cornucopia that I set out in our foyer / entry area. Below that, there’s a photo of a plush black cat in a Buffalo check basket with matching acorns. I set that up on the side table in my dining room – it covered the Halloween through Thanksgiving season. About that cat; as Halloween approached, I had it in my mind that I wanted to add a spooky cat to my decorating exploits. As I soon found, I didn’t have the budget to acquire a life-sized cat sculpture. I had about given up hope when, while scrolling for said item at Amazon, a child’s plush toy popped up. It was very lifelike, and just fifteen bucks. Truly, he seemed so real that I found myself going in to give him a nice little pet as I walked through the room!

The autumn dining room table decor was a series of very lifelike pumpkins lined up along a Buffalo plaid table runner (to match the acorns above.) Somehow, I failed to photograph that subject before I swapped it out for the Christmas themed centerpiece.

For the dining room table this season, I was inspired by a gold toned table cloth (because it was a very good deal – which often is an impetus for my inspirations!) I’m not a gold or “fancy” sort of gal, but that nine dollar table cloth hooked me into the glitzy! I envisioned filling large, glass vases of varying heights with gold tone ornaments. I owned a low, wide bowl and a tall flower vase, so I only had to purchase the tallest vessel, which turned out to be a challenge until I spotted the perfect item it in the craft section at Wal-mart. I purchased the shatter-less (aka plastic) ornaments which were also quite reasonably priced when sold in a bulk set. Here’s how my glitzy-glam Christmas centerpiece turned out:

On the side-bar table in the dining room, I set up the elf-fairies atop their red, wooden sled which I have had for several years. I look forward to bringing these characters out every season. When I purchased them (sight unseen on line) I hoped that the “edge sitting” fairies would fit on the sled, which I acquired separately. Every year, when I get them out, I smile about how perfectly those fairies fit atop the red runner.

My favorites, by far, are the new characters that I set up on the buffet table in the foyer. I LOVE THEM! They were not dressed in ribbons or bows when I picked them out last night on a rare shopping trip we took to Hobby Lobby. But, I think the additions are charming. I’m quite smitten with these polar bears. I am already looking forward to getting them out next year!

On this Thanksgiving eve, I send out my warmest wishes to you and yours. May the holiday season fill you with warmth, tranquility, kindness, happiness, gratitude and love.

Dark-eyed Junco

These cuties spend their summer breeding season up in Canada. They come home to our neck of the woods in winter. These are the first two I have seen this season.

Viewing the top picture, I am always happy when a bird lands in the perfect spot – like this photo that frames the subject in a natural wreath of branches.

I just reread the first paragraph. It made me wonder; do birds consider their breeding grounds “home” or is the location where they spend the winter months their “main residence?” Gotta wonder how a bird views the world.

Scoundrels

When you hear the term “invasive species” you may think of Burmese Pythons living in the Florida Everglades as a result of intention releases or escapes of pet snakes into the somewhat fragile, one-of-a-kind ecosystem. The subtropical wetlands are currently found nowhere else on Earth. The pythons grow to exceedingly large proportions and consume some of Florida’s most prized wildlife.

Perhaps, rather you think of the Lion Fish. Native to the Indio-Pacific it’s also a favorite in the aquarium realm. As a result of pet release, the Lion Fish continues to expand it’s population in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean, out-competing with native species and causing damage to those natural reefs.

However, you may not put a cute, little, gregarious bird that visits your backyard feeder in the same villainous category as snakehaeds, zebra mussels, or Asian carp (all highly invasive species that wreak havoc on the ecosystems they continue to infiltrate.) Yet, the House Sparrow (a bird native to Europe that history claims escaped from a zoo exhibit in the late 1800s) has expanded it range to cover all of the USA and southern Canada, most of Central America and about half of South America! House Sparrows are cavity nesters. They seek and assume ownership of any hole with the right dimensions to built their nest and rear their clutches of baby House Sparrows. They are not only tolerant, but attracted to living around human establishments. Their omnivorous diet helps them thrive a myriad of locations. It’s likely that the bird to which you tossed a scrap of bread in a park or fast food restaurant parking lot was a House Sparrow!

They compete heavily with native species that use cavities in which to nest like the lovely Eastern Bluebird, the acrobatic Tree Swallow, House Wren, Black-capped Chickadee and Tufted Titmouse. They don’t seem to care about the size of the hole and we’ve had them build nests inside boxes made for owls which are far deeper than a standard Bluebird box, which they will also inhabit. For that reason, House Sparrow are scoundrels in many people’s minds – including mine. I have watched House Sparrows out-compete Bluebirds and Tree swallows many times for boxes we offer for the native species.

And yet, when I am out filming I often aim and shoot at any bird even if I cannot immediately recognize it from my distance. After all, it could end up being a species I have never filmed (like the Harris’s sparrow I captured last week!) I often end up with photos of House Sparrows and just as often I refrain from including them in my blog because….well, I’m not truly certain.

On the other hand, I’m absolutely certain that the House Sparrows that exist next to all the native species are unaware that they don’t belong here. They are just making a living in the way that their genetic heritability dictates. It’s not uncommon for a photographer to film scoundrels of all sorts. Sometimes, the most artistic of photographers is able to make even the ugly things in life appear very beautiful.

Is it so wrong to film and publish shunned subjects? And, is the photographer that makes the images available automatically sympathetic to these avian ne’er-do-wells? I hope not. For here I share a few images of House Sparrows in the only home they know. But, let it be known that my heart breaks every time I witness House Sparrows negatively impacting our native birds and we do our best to discourage their reproduction. I have previously posted about our “planned parenthood” strategy for House Sparrow occupation of the nest boxes we offer the wild birds. Here I show their natural beauty for they know not their transgressions.

Bees versus Birds

Yesterday, I posted about the House Finches that stopped by to enjoy the fresh fruit I hung in a tree.

I retained a few photos to present in this post, in order to share the talent of one of the finches.

When I first arrived near the apple tree, I noticed dozens of sweat bees on the apple. Clearly, they were indulging in the nectar like juice of the fruits. As I hadn’t yet observed what animals were eating the fruit, the sheer numbers of bees made me wonder if the insects, alone, had been responsible for consuming the apple and orange flesh.

Then, a female House Finch showed up and most of the bees flew off. The brave bees which stuck around soon found that they were no longer welcome on the apple, as the bird felt compelled to pluck off the invaders.

Here’s a short video showing the House Finch’s pluck-n-flick action that seemed mostly successful at freeing up the apple exclusively for her!

An Apple a Day

There’s a apple tree out by the old barn that bears quite a bit of fruit. When they are ripe, I often pluck one off the tree as I am traveling around looking for birds and other wildlife. Last year I noticed that some of the apples were being eaten by an unknown creature. Most folks told me it was probably a squirrel. But, the trail cam revealed that a few different species of birds were taking advantage of the apples; Rose-breasted grosbeaks, House finches, Gray catbirds and the bird that took the biggest bites was a Red-bellied woodpecker.

This year, due to a myriad of events, I wasn’t able to go out before I discovered that all of the apples had been harvested. So, like I did last year after all the natural apples were gone, I hung a few purchased fruits in the tree to attract and feed the birds. This year, I also added sliced oranges. There are a lot of birds traveling through on migration and local birds that intend to remain here all winter are preparing for the cold weather.

The weather has not cooperated, and I’ve been unable to get out to film what has been noshing on the apples I’ve hung. But, I finally got lucky and captured House Finches eating the fruits (both apple and oranges.) The species I caught yesterday, the House Finch, seemed to prefer the apple, but three different birds also took a few bites of the citrus.

Here is a video of a female House Finch. There are still shots below of a couple of females and a male. While I didn’t get good shots of them all, I observed three males and two females. Enjoy!

Rare Find!

After months of not seeing or even hearing birds – at least not at the same level as last year this time – today was a stellar day. I will post some photos of the few other species I saw today, but this post is about the Harris’s Sparrow that showed up in the overgrown weeds near the old barn.

The bird I filmed doesn’t look anything the Harris’s sparrow at the AllAboutBirds guide. In fact, it didn’t look like any species I saw under “Sparrows” at that site. So, I posted to a IL birding group on Facebook for some assistance identifying what I figured was a sparrow – but which one? When I received the response that it was a Harris’s I figured it must be a juvenile, since the photos in the guide show a bird sporting a lovely and very distinctive black head and bib. I did a quick internet search for juvenile Harris’s sparrow images, and I’m pretty sure the person who assisted me from the FB group was right. Like the White-crowned Sparrow youngsters whose brown head markings change to black as they mature, I was able to see images of Harris’s sparrows that looked very much like the bird I filmed.

AllAboutBirds (link posted above) provides a map of the species’s breeding, wintering a migration locations. I’m taking the liberty to provide the species range image here – which, of course belongs to AllAboutBirds:

That is a very small range in which you can find this species!

Here’s some other info about this species that I’m quoting from the AllAboutBirds page on Harris’s Sparrow:

The Harris’s Sparrow is..”North America’s largest sparrow (except for towhees) and the only songbird that breeds in Canada and nowhere else in the world. In winter it settles in the south-central Great Plains, where it is a backyard favorite. Unfortunately, Harris’s Sparrow populations are declining; its restricted range make it vulnerable to habitat loss on the wintering and breeding grounds.”

Here are some additional images I captured of this lovely bird.

Curiously, as I was snapping photos of this bird that was about 100 feet away settled on an old fence post, a juvenile White-crowned Sparrow flew into the shot. The two birds had a “moment” before the WC flew off.

I feel very fortunate to have captured this somewhat rare bird – especially for where I live. The guide shows the eastern boundary of it’s migration route along the Mississippi river which is about eighty miles west of us. That wouldn’t seem so far off if I hadn’t looked at what a tiny range this bird has for it’s breeding and wintering grounds. It was a lucky day!

Snow Birds

As the summer avian residents depart for the tropics, it gets very quiet outdoors around here, both in sound (the birds’ songs) and visually. I can move through an area and not scare up a bird.

Just as I am starting to feel a bit depressed about the lack of avian activity, species that I haven’t seen since Spring begin to return. These birds nested and fledged their chicks far to the north, and consider my location (39 deg N latitude) their winter home.

Except for the orange slices I put out for the Orioles’ arrival in Spring and the Hummingbird nectar feeders that I keep filled all summer, I do not offer seed or suet to wild birds in summer. However, just a few days ago, I restocked the platform feeder in the north Pond Meadow to welcome the winter residents after their long migrations from the far north.

One of the first returnees is a true favorite of mine. The White-crowned Sparrow is a distinctive, gregarious little bird.

Yesterday, I captured a couple of these cute sparrows on and around the feeder. The adult birds sport very distinguishing head markings that some people refer to as a bicycle helmet.

The juvenile individuals have a similar marking pattern to the adults. However, they have brown, rather than black stripes over their head. The contrasting bright white along with the black hue develop over time.

These birds are known to scratch (seeds) like a chicken. I caught the behavior in the following photo!

I’m happy to welcome these cuties back for the winter.

Hen of the Woods

We have a great neighbor, Greg. He maintains an incredible garden and generously shares his overflow of juicy and delicious vegetables throughout the summer. Today, he showed up on his ATV (we neighbors live a half mile or farther away from each other) with the back cargo space filled to the brim with wild mushrooms that he harvested off his land. Robert met him out front. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the bounty. Maitake or Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa) grows at the base of oak trees. Greg’s land is heavily wooded, unlike ours. So, I am grateful for his generous spirit.

Greg handed over a large mushroom to Robert, and then pointed to the fifteen or so squirrels that he had also harvested. I would have considered it a compelling challenge to research and then cook up a squirrel. It’s a wild meat I had never eaten before, but am not opposed to it. After all, you never know how a solar flair, global pandemic or man-made event could interrupt our food chain. However, Robert declined the rodent. So, I focused on the fungus!

I was excited to learn how to prepare the Hen of the Woods delicacy. Robert relayed Greg’s suggestion to coat in seasoned flour and deep fry the mushrooms. I thought the recipes that described roasting to be more my style. There were two basic options; long and low at 300 F for about an hour and the option that I chose. It seemed more likely to produce good caramelization and required a 425 F oven for about 25 minutes.

During my quick exploration of internet know-how, I learned that wild mushrooms, especially one with many crevasses like the Maitake, often contain quite a bit of dirt and possibly even insects lurking in their folds. Some sources said to avoid rinsing in water as a means of cleaning the fungus. Yet, other sites stated that a quick soaking in salted water and then sufficient drying could result in a cleaner product. That’s what I chose to do. First, I ripped off about one quarter of the large mushroom. Even though it appeared free of conspicuous debris, I used a large bowl of water to assist in removal of less obvious dregs.

Hand shredding was advised in most of the recipes I reviewed. I followed those directions and tore the cleaned quarter into bite-sized pieces.

Most often the recipes I read suggested coating the mushroom pieces in olive oil and a combination of garlic, thyme and salt. Some included oregano and / or shallots or even diced onion. I went with sea salt, garlic powder and dried thyme for my first attempt at roasting the mushroom.

I mixed the dry ingredients into the olive oil, then added the shredded pieces of mushroom and gave it a good toss.

I spread the mushroom pieces in a single layer on a foil lined baking sheet and put it into a pre-heated 425 F oven. Midway to 25 minutes, I tossed the pieces to keep them from sticking.

Finally, I had to decide when to remove the pan from the oven. I tasted a piece at the 25 minutes point, and found it to be a bit crunchy on the edges and chewy on the inside. I chose to give it an additional 5 minutes.

The results were truly delicious. Most pieces were crunchy almost all the way through. The larger pieces had a bit more chew in the center. Every piece was very flavorful and while Robert and I at them as a stand-alone snack, I could see them as a great topper to a burger or as a compliment to a charcuterie type spread.

Thank-you, Greg! I look forward to possibly pan/skillet frying the next batch.

I’m no Spring-chicken. But, I relish the opportunity to try new things – and a “Hen of the Woods” was a wonderful way to keep this old bird spry. It’s fun to learn, especially when the endeavor ends up with such a delectable treat!

Cattails & Blackbirds

Sometimes the backdrop for a photo is as pleasing as the actual subject. I feel that way about these photos of a female Red-winged blackbird that flew into the stand of cattails near the west end of our pond.

Cattails are synonymous to swampy wetlands. Early season lemon-green shoots announce the beginning of Spring then eventually fade to sedge-brown, twisted leaves that embrace the cocoa colored flower spikes that truly appear more “cat tail” than blossom. The dried flowers slowly disperses their seeds during winter’s wrath, and springtime’s blustering winds. I have seen birds tugging the spent cattail fibers from it’s stalk to line their nests that cradle their precious eggs.

I love the way that this lovely bird clings to the mature cattails as she preens her new feathers – well readied for the cold weather of winter.