Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Birding

Merry Christmas, everybody!

I hope everybody is doing well, and enjoying the holiday. My thoughts are with you all, and especially with my Grandma and my Mom and her two sisters, Marilyn and Patti.

Last night I spent a very nice Christmas Eve with my cousin Kate and her husband Kevin, their two kids James and Petey, Kevin's parents and his sister's family. We had a wonderful meal and it is nice to spend some time with family when I am otherwise spending the holidays alone here in Boston. No reason for too much pity, however; I will be spending a week each in Cincinnati and on Whidbey Island in January.

Today was my second annual Christmas Birding trek to Plum Island. We are in the midst of a stellar year for winter finches and frugivores such as redpolls, bohemian waxwings, evening grosbeaks, crossbills, etc. In particular, Common and Hoary Redpolls have been reported very consistently in the Hellcat parking lot on Plum Island, and I was hoping to see them there. No such luck. It was actually a pretty quiet day, with low numbers of species and individuals found (at least by me and those I was with). Nonetheless, you couldn't have asked for a nicer day and as it turned out I found a few nice birds anyway.

The highlight had to be the northern shrike; I was driving south along the refuge road and saw a bird perched at the top of a roadside tree, cocking its tail and grappling with the branch in the breeze. I got out and saw that it was a northern shrike. I watched it for a half-minute or so before a small flock of goldfinches came along and buzzed it repeatedly; it left its perch and flew across the road into a thick bramble. I lost sight of it but a moment later I heard a cardinal start pitching a fit, and suddenly a female cardinal burst out of the shrubs and flew across the road, the shrike in close pursuit, maybe just four feet behind it. Then I lost them; I don't know who came out the winner.

Other highlights included a Rough-legged Hawk and a Snowy Owl. For those who are interested in what a slow christmas morning's birding at Plum Island might bring, here is my complete list of species: Candada Goose, American Black Duck, Snow Bunting, Herring Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Northern Shrike, American Goldfinch, Northern Cardinal, American Robin, Black-capped Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Tree Sparrow, European Starling, Northern Harrier, Snowy Owl, Horned Lark, American Crow, Blue Jay, Rough-Legged Hawk, Mallard, White-winged Scoter, Common Loon, Mourning Dove.

On the way home, I stopped off at the Ipswich River Sanctuary, still hoping for the redpolls. No dice, and their feeders were empty, so it was very quiet. However, I did add: Red-tailed Hawk (a wonderful view), Downy Woodpecker, Tufted Titmouse and one very friendly Chickadee that kept landing on my head! (They are used to handouts here).

On my way home, I also saw a Raven, my second for the week (the first was in Newton, outside my place of employment, of all places).

Not a bad morning, after all. 28 species. Later on I'll check massbird.org and see some fellow birder post 50-60 species (or more!) in the same locations, I'm sure.

Merry Christmas!!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

First Snow and a special message for Gabby

As I am writing this, we are in the midst of our first real snow of the season. It's a real storm; it's not blowy or icy but there's a lot of accumulation. I woke up to reports for the Boston area of 3-7 inches, but I think we've got 9 or 10 already and it's still coming down steadily.
The first snow is special; I'm always surprised and delighted at its pure, uncanny beauty when it first appears. If I ever found myself living someplace where this didn't happen, and it certainly could happen, you never know what life might bring, I would miss it. I think I would especially miss taking a walk in the late evening as the snow still falls, when most everybody has gotten off the streets and has bundled up inside. The sidewalks and roads are empty and the silence is breathtaking; you can hear the little music of the snowflakes falling on the ground. I will stand and watch the snow fall against the light from a streetlamp, just happy to be in it. Later, I will sit in bed trying to read a book but my eyes will still be drawn to the snow outside, and I will fall asleep wondering how deep it will be in the morning.
And before I sign off,
HAPPY BIRTHDAY GABRIELLA!! I love you, Gabs, and miss you! See you soon!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Blue, Blue Hubbard Squash

One of the best, and simplest, things to cook during this time of year, this cold and blowy time of late Fall and Winter, is a winter squash. These are certainly some of the most enjoyable vegetables (fruits, technically) to shop for, as their eye-popping colors, shapes and textures never fail to entertain, from acorn to spaghetti (a prize to the reader who can come up with a winter squash further on in the alphabet). Orange, yellow, green, striped, warty, curved, the varieties seem endless, and the big bushels full of them are one of the signature sights of Fall.

I've recently discovered the amazing hubbard squash, sometimes called the blue hubbard squash after it's wonderful sky-blue color. This is the big bruiser of the squash family, other than the mutant show-pumpkins. I've been told that if you buy a whole one the best way to break it open is to throw it from your roof. Luckily, there's a local grocer who cuts them up into nice wedges for less adventurous consumption. The flesh inside is a nice light orange, and the seeds are large and plump. I've also found the hubbard to be one of the tastiest of the winter squash, far outstripping the acorn (which I find a little bland) and easily contending with the butternut and the baking pumpkins.

My favorite way to cook one is to carve out the orange flesh away from the seeds and the skin and chop it into medium-sized chunks, an inch or two all around. I toss these with olive oil, salt, pepper and chopped fresh sage and throw them into a cast-iron skillet. Put it into a 400 degree oven and oven-roast for a half-hour to forty-five minutes, turning with a spatula every fifteen minutes or so. They should get soft and nicely browned on a couple sides. That's it, you can now eat them.

Oh, and the wonderful side benefit, my favorite salty snack in the whole wide world, spicy squash seeds. Separate the seeds (unhulled of course -the fiber's good for you, and crunchy) from the flesh and inner glop - though I recommend NOT cleaning them completely - a little of that stringy orange squash innards toasts up very well with the seeds, adding a little sweetness. Toss the seeds with olive oil, salt, pepper, and ground dried cayenne, to taste (in my case lots) and spread out on a baking sheet. These can go right in the oven with the squash, and will come out sooner. Shake them around every few minutes until they are toasted brown on both sides and sizzling. I dearly love these. If I could find fresh, raw, untoasted, unhulled pumpkin seeds to buy by the pound I would do so. As much as I love winter squash, I just can't eat the enormous quanitites I would have to in order to fully satisfy my craving for the toasted seeds.

Leftover squash, by the way, is great in soups (and great just reheated) but my favorite use for it is in a risotto. The soft texture and caramelized flavor perfectly suits the creamy complexity of a good risotto.