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Saturday, October 24, 2020

Colors of Autumn


 It’s been a few years since we had colors this spectacular. Last year was all dull browns and yellows, but this year the reds broke out in full force again. 







Sunday, September 27, 2020

Autumn Tales


 Quietly, the chill creeps into the air. The sunrise seems to get later with each passing day. Garden plants start yellowing, the maples start to change color...

No, summer isn’t quite gone yet. It’s still lingering in the small vegetables and bountiful cherry tomatoes that are still coming to the kitchen every other day or so. It’s still there in the bursts of warmish bright sunny days with brilliant blue skies. 

But autumn is hard on summer’s heel.

The little groundhog has bulked up over the summer. We have finally achieved a peaceful detente with it, as it confined its meals to assorted weeds in our yard, and those in the Boo Radley-esque neighbor’s yard. It hasn’t tried digging into the vegetable patch yet, so far, so good. It lumbered onto the deck today, to grab an acorn snack, something that it rarely does. 

(I had hoped to include a little video, but Blogger is giving me trouble, so maybe another time)



........

The spot near the vegetable garden had been cleared a few months back by the neighbor’s landscaping guys. But Nature has rebounded in that patch. This year there are some spectacularly beautiful goldenrod spikes waving above the other weedy bushes, great cover for all the birds there.


.........

A week ago, the newspaper was talking about thousands of birds flying over the region, and asked us to keep an eye out for them. But like many such alerts, nothing came of it that day or the next.

Today we were treated to a large group of grackles flying south, as they paused for a roadstop on their journey. They spread out over the lawns around us, I would estimate a group of a few hundred birds. They pecked at the lawn, a few flew on to the branches of trees. As I opened the squeaky screen door, a few took off from our lawn, creating a momentary haze of beating wings and black silhouettes.

(And, that's why they say a picture is worth a thousand words, this being unable to post video is really annoying...)








Saturday, August 29, 2020

Highway in the Backyard

 We have a low deck, positioned about two to three feet off the uneven ground from whatever was left of backfill after our house was constructed, back in the early '70s.

It's a good deck, sturdy, painted and repainted many times over the years, with an oak tree towering over it at end, making it a lovely shaded haven even on the hottest summer day.

Underneath the deck, it's a different story. The soil seems hard and dry, with miscellaneous pieces of rock and broken concrete scattered where the view penetrates into the gloom. It's a mysterious, unknowable zone, I always thought.

The groundhog makes it home in a burrow there,it usually waddles in and out at various points around the deck. I had taken to spraying the entrance points with peppermint oil, hoping to discourage the groundhog from settling there, and potentially ravaging our garden.

Then, just a couple of days ago, on a cloudy cool afternoon, I saw a raccoon emerging from under the deck, padding away carefully at first, then going on a full fledged dash towards the neighbor's yard. What could it have been doing there? Acorns, I think, were the big attraction of the season.

Yesterday, the rabbit was back near the far end of the deck, close to where I had attempted to block an entrance with a flower pot. It scooted under the deck the moment the screen door squeaked as I opened it.

Same with a small set of chipmunks. 

So, there you have it- a critter highway under the deck, not burrows for the groundhog as I thought. This one plays host to a variety of creatures who visit it at various times of the year for food, shelter, or just as a convenient way to get somewhere without running into clueless humans.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Green Green, it’s green they say...

 "Green green, it's green they say
  On the far side of the hill.
Green green, I'm goin' away
Where the grass is greener still.."   (New Christy Minstrels, 1963)

  An old song that comes to mind from a chorus group that I sang with when I was in grade school. But this post isn’t really about the song, it’s just a catchy tune that ear wormed itself into my brain. 

First, the green worm. I was on my usual morning walk, pretty close to home when I saw this bright green charmer with two almost fluorescent yellow stripes on the back. I took the chance and bent down to take a short video of this little beauty, a cabbage worm that hopefully makes it to butterflyhood some day soon. It pushed determinedly along the road for some time, before moving to the grass. 





Then, there were the metallic green sweat bees or augochlorini, sparkling iridescent in the sunlight as they buzzed around the mint flowers in my garden. Tiny as they are, it’s fascinating to watch them as they industriously collect the nectar from the delicate lavender colored flowers. 

 



Saturday, July 18, 2020

Bird Behavioralist

Having ample opportunity to watch the birds at the feeder this year, with all the working from home...

The other day, a blue jay lay flat, unmoving, wings spread out under the now faded peony plant. I was alarmed, was it injured or dead? Should I go out to see what had happened. Near it stood another blue jay. In the space of less than a minute, the prone blue jay stood up sprightly, and the other one took its place in the same weird wings-spread-out pose. What on earth were they doing? The whole sequence may have lasted just a couple of minutes.

Heigh ho, heigh ho, it's off to Google we go.

This behavior, not unique to blue jays, is called 'Anting'. It's thought that the birds locate areas where there are ants, spread down with their chests and wings to collect the ants, and later eat them. Some scientists  believe that it is helpful to the birds in that the formic acid released by the ants helps the birds 'self disinfect' of parasites. Other scientists think that it is more likely that the release of formic acid from the ants renders them more delicious to the birds which pick at and eat the ants.

Then, on a walk in another neighborhood, I witnessed a Flicker fight. It wasn't obvious from the markings whether these were two males or females fighting, but I did manage to capture a few seconds of video where the interloper was chased off by the attacked bird. At least, till I became the intruder and the birds flew off to the safety of different trees.


Thursday, June 25, 2020

Baby Birds Galore

This is a baby birds edition, just because of the number of little video clips that I have to share from the last few days. None of the babies are abandoned, the parents have retreated to the tree tops, raining avian curses upon me, as I, the mysterious stranger, wave my mobile phone over them like a wand. They safely got back to feeding the fledgling once I had gone indoors.


Baby robins ( the day before they left the nest)



Baby grackle ( just fledged today, with anxious parents kekking above in the trees)



Juvenile mourning doves on a deck adventure 
Update:

Finally, after many, many months, a turkey sighting- a hen with four chicks. This is the first time in years that I haven’t seen any in the spring or early summer.


Sunday, June 14, 2020

Sunrise Chaser

That’s what I have become these days. Soon after the time shift, instead of chasing the moon set, I have now become addicted to capturing the colors of sunrise. The colors may last only a few minutes, dulling to more muted shades. But we have been having some truly beautiful and vivid sunrises. Here’s a photo sampling.










Sunday, May 31, 2020

Baby Mourning Dove

It's baby bird season again.

A few days ago, the 'Kek-kek-kek' of the grackle family was in high gear, while the parent grackles picked out choice insects from the grass, feeding it to a little fledgling that was yet to fend totally for itself. They often do this fairly close to the flower bed under the fringetree near our deck.

I peered out at the deck, and noticed a smallish bird carefully hopping along the lower railing of the deck's fence. It was brown black with a darker beak, and looked like a baby bird of some kind. It reached the end of the railing it was on, peered at the perilous four inch hop to the deck, summoned up its courage, and made the jump.

Whew, it landed correctly, on its feet!

A few seconds later, Papa arrived, a mourning dove with pinkish red feathers on the breast, landing about a foot away from Baby. He kept a slight distance from the fledgling, not going up close, or attempting to feed it. He walked away, leading toward the flower bed on the other side.

The baby mourning dove slowly followed him, and made a second perilous(not) leap to the flower bed from the deck. They spent some time pecking for insects.

A little while later, as the baby continued its attempts to find food, it passed too close to a Northern flicker in the same grass patch. I watched in horror through the glass as the flicker tried to peck at the fledgling, opening the sliding door to the deck with its loud squeak in an attempt to rush out.

By the time I stepped out, all the birds had flown off. The fledgling was nowhere to be seen. I hoped that it had not been injured, but couldn't be sure until an hour later when I saw it again, this time on a tree stump further away.
Unflighted dove fledglings are made to leave the nest by the parents after around 13 days past hatching.  They must stay groundbound for a few days, with nothing but general instruction from their parents (not food, which they must learn to find for themselves).

In the meantime, they must also evade predators which include other birds, some rodents, and wandering cats, in order to make it to the next stage of juvenile mourning dove.

A peril fraught existence indeed!

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Sunrises and Flowers

It’s been a while since I posted, no particular inspiration to do so. But there have been lots of beautiful sunrises and flowers. So here are the photos that I took over the last few days.







Wednesday, May 13, 2020

A Diversity of Birds

Maybe not a truly large number of species, but here is the list of birds observed this spring so far in my little suburban home garde and neighborhood. I have linked some of them to the descriptions and paintings of the bird by John Jame Audubon at the audubon.org website.

Cooper's hawk (juvenile), sitting out in a thunderstorm on the deck.

A family of grackles (5) which swoop and fly around the backyard, feeding on bugs in the grass, and drinking at the bird bath.

Numerous robins, living in assorted oak and maple trees in my yard and other yards nearby.

Chipping sparrow, with red (rufous) markings on their crowns, observed 2 this morning, hopping on the deck, feasting in synchrony on oak blossoms.

House finches, with their red heads, dive bombing the bird bath for a few drinks.

Gold finches (1-2 females), 4 smallish males the other day, perched on the syringa tree, again near the bird bath.

Mourning doves, a pair, seem to come back year after year.

White crowned sparrow, with noticeable white and black markings on the crown of its head, described by the bird book (Sibley) as being uncommon (Yay, a rare avian visitor!), seen rooting around in the square pot for seeds.

Blue jays- not commonly seen this year, though less shy in previous years, but heard screaming this year from neighboring yards.

Red cardinals, 5-6 assorted juvenile males and the occasional female.

Tufted titmouse- seen more frequently in previous years, only once this year. Update: It looks like I just needed to invoke it for it to show up. It came yesterday to the bird bath, just after I had refilled it with fresh water and cleaned out the old gunk. It took multiple dips over a 10 minute period, flew away when we stepped out onto the deck, and later came back for more ablutions.

Great horned owls, heard but not seen in the early spring mornings.

Crow, seen 1, heard a few more.

Redwinged blackbirds- seen last year as a rare visitor to the bird bath. Not yet seen this year. They are more common near the Boyce Mayview recreation center and trail, where I haven't yet gone this year.

Pileated woodpecker, with red marking on crown, black and white feathers, seen a few juveniles attempting to make holes in somebody's roof, then flying back to a tree in disgust.

Downy woodpecker Northern Flicker (a type of woodpecker) with brownish feathers, small red marking on crown, digging industriously in the front lawn, as it was flanked by a chipmunk and a robin on either side.

Chickadee: Seen hopping down to the birdbath.

Turkeys: Heard them gobble in the woods behind the Post office, which lie behind some of the houses in the Clairmont section. I haven't seen them coming up to the roads yet, maybe they are waiting for the warmer weather to kick in, and new broods of young ones.

Gray catbird- A smallish, completely gray all over bird, with a small black stripe on the head, and some black on the tail. I have seen a couple of these in different locations on my morning walks. They are a little more skittish and fly away quickly, though the one I saw this morning seemed a little more inclined to walk toward me and eye me with some curiosity.





Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Vanity and Virtue

No, I'm not trying for a Jane Austen effect...well, I suppose I was being rather too Mr.Collins-ish in trying to compose a clever sounding title for this blog post.

Hubby asked me the other day, "There's a group of ladies at the local BV group that are forming a mask making team for the VA hospital. V asked if you might be interested in joining."

"I'm interested."

So, it started. My phone number got added to the Mask making Whatsapp group, all due welcomes and then the messages started piling up. 'See this mask video." I tried sewing something similar to that as a test. "No, not that one. We're doing this one!" with links to more masks and stringent instructions. "Will we get fabric and elastic?"
"Yes, we will supply that.""Wait, some of you will have to sew ties, not enough elastic for all."

So much back and forth.  While waiting for the fabric, I made another sample mask of the preferred pattern, and kept posting vanity messages showing off the masks I made, to keep up with the Joneses on the group, who had been posting photographs of their samples. At the risk of sounding boastful, I must say that my sample photos were quite well received.
Or maybe not,  that's just the nature of these groups. We post something, and the main arbiters of fashion have to mandatorily Ooh and aah over it, to encourage people to keep posting, or the group  goes into the oblivion of unrefreshed chats.
D-Day arrived, all materials had been cut and were getting ready to be dropped off. "I can make 30", offered one lady, "I can make 20", said another. "I will make 10." chimed in yet another. I offered to make 10, figuring that since there were about 20 ladies in the group, 250 masks seemed like a reasonable target for the overall group.
I spent some time placing out the mask paper pattern on some fabric that I had, trying to estimate what might be the optimum layouts and the maximum number of masks we could extract from each yard of fabric.  I didn't hesitate to post the gory details of estimated yardage and masks in messages to the group, along with reminders to factor in seam allowances that were missing from the pattern, pre-wash and shrinkage. It might have been useful for the newbie sewistas, but I'm sure that at least a couple of seasoned clothesmakers must have rolled their eyes in annoyance at my impertinence.
I had thought that I would get a couple of yards, enough for 7-8 masks, but opened my mailbox to find a heavy bundle of fabric. Me and my loudmouth, I thought- it had gotten me a bunch of 6 individually cut yards.
The actual cutting and sewing of the masks was, to me, fun. The only tedious part of it was making ties, but even those settled into a Zen-like activity, once I had all issues with having to constantly refill bobbins of thread worked out. My mini-one-woman assembly line was operational and churning out masks by the dozen ( or at least, a couple of dozen.)
Meanwhile, the messaging group kept posting more messages. "Finished 6 masks, need more fabric", someone pleaded. " Finished 15 masks, have 2 yards, what sizes do you want", came from an experienced sewing maven.
Yikes, I must up my game, haven't finished more than 10 masks yet, I thought. But then, what of the mechanics of these groups that triggers the inherent competitiveness of human nature? I slowed down and thought about it. No, it's not time to set off a mask race, just to focus on finishing one's allotted quota of material in a reasonably timely and well-stitched fashion. I ended up making a grand total of 25 masks.
Was this a vanity project that I had undertaken? Something to showcase the skills acquired but not frequently on display, now converted to a 'Let's help first responders and the frontline of the battle against the virus' with our undervalued home crafts? No, that's not a vanity project which does nothing but promote the vanity of the person who does it, since this did produce something useful for healthcare providers who need the masks.
 So, is it a virtue to help? To be clear, what I saw and participated in the group seemed to be more about virtue signalling. Yes, we are helping, but we are also, in the process of partaking in these group dynamics, proclaiming to others that we are the virtuous, putting our sewing skills to good use and providing for people in dire need of the protection in this upside down world.
It's motherhood at its all-embracing and vanity-satisfying best.
(Sorry, fathers are uninterested in this mode of virtue signalling!)




Monday, April 27, 2020

Mouse House

When my kids were young, I acquired a colorful little board book, perfect for little hands, about a mouse and his friend who lived together in a tiny house, called 'Mouse House', naturally. The book still lurks at the back of some book cupboard. Every time I go through the books to identify which to jettison at the local library donation box, this one always survives the culling, just because of the sense of nostalgia that it evokes.

A few nights ago, Hubby noticed a tiny gray shadow streaking past him as he puttered around the basement. He came upstairs and announced "I think we have a mouse in the house! Saw it run past me in the basement."

Eek! That would have normally prompted me to pull my legs off the floor, onto the sofa. But then, it was still in the basement.

An hour later, Hubby swore he had caught sight of it running past him in the dining room. He took out a torch and shined it behind the buffet cupboard, "It's hiding there, I saw it! Go get me a box or basket to trap it if it runs out."
By the time the requested box was brought there, the mouse had vanished from the dining room, despite our fairly thorough search of all the nooks and crannies. Time to activate Plan B, which was of course, a mouse trap.

I ventured out in the sunlight after more than a month of pandemic stay-at-home quarantine, driving down to the local Home Depot, stood in line, looking like an amateur bank robber with my new nifty cloth mask, made a beeline for the pests section of the store and grabbed a couple of 2 packs of the 'self-contained' mouse traps that promised to hide away the little critters from your sight, even as it trapped them, so that you could just discard the entire trap (with mouse) in your trash.

Next, we had to set up the traps, putting tastefully tiny dabs of 'mouse attractant' gel (peanut butter was also recommended, but Hubby wanted me to get the gel, as he thought it would be more effective.) Once in place, we set up the traps near locations that we thought the mouse might like to frequent in the kitchen, as well as one in the basement.

Day 1. No mouse. Day 2 No mouse. Was the mouse too smart to enter the trap? Was the 'attractant gel' a dud? Should we switch to peanut butter instead?

Or did the mouse just somehow make it back to the great outdoors? I shall ponder on this mystery for the next few days or weeks, or until the currently empty traps catch something.

For now, the house is still a mouse house, until I see no nibbled evidence of its existence.

Update:
A mouse was caught today in the trap. After almost 10 days with no signs of mouse, we replaced the 'attractant gel' with Swiss cheese and mozzarella, and moved the traps to a couple of different locations. Finally, success! One mouse down, we don't know how many more to go (I'm keeping my fingers crossed that this isn't more than one or two mice!)



Friday, April 24, 2020

Groundhog Day Redux

A few days ago, the groundhog came back.

 It looked considerably thinner than the well-padded version that I saw last fall. It advanced to the side of the deck, near where a yellow rose bush had been planted, scraped industriously at the pile of leaves, and discovered an old pathway that led under our deck.

Drat! I thought I had concealed that entrance well enough, placing a flower pot, which seems to have somehow shifted from there to another location a few feet away. I wouldn't put it past some other critter having nosed it away from the entrance to the under-deck path, maybe even Mr/Ms Groundhog.

In the grey, indolent afternoon, temperatures were warming up at last. The rose bush had sprouted lots of new leaves, and the dogwood tree branches above sported a few hundred buds. The groundhog crept out on to the grass, now speckled with dandelions.

Time for dandelion and grass salad. The groundhog munched steadily for a while, and after about ten minutes, it had had enough, and trundled back under the deck.

A chipmunk came onto the deck and dug industriously into the large square planting box, perchance to find a hidden acorn or two. It ran past the fringetree and vanished into the earth.

I opened the sliding door and walked out to the shrub. There was a tiny hole in the ground there.
A chipmunk den- I had never thought that chipmunks live in the ground, but there it was. I looked it up and found the illustration below of what looks like a very cozy living space.

The illustration is by Meg Sodano, based off of a simple line drawing from the 1970s research that first mapped it.

I like to think that the chipmunk has a burrow that is very similar, even though there is no vantage rock pile, just a hole in the mulch.

As for the groundhog, it probably has a larger den, looking somewhat like the picture on the right, under the deck or elsewhere.
I really hope it's elsewhere, or it forebodes ill for any kitchen garden dreams!

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

A Question of Culture

A school classmate of mine was mystified by the vanishing of yeast packets from the grocery stores near her. The pandemic has turned every homebound homebody's thoughts toward baking, which, of course, calls for enough yeast supplies to last through the next decade.

'Maybe try sourdough', I suggested, never the one to keep silent if I could google adequate advice. "This recipe for sourdough starter seems promising..."
"Yes, I already have one started", she replied, "But I'm still going to try and find some at the office, I think they had some there."
Impressed by the recipe (of King Arthur flour fame), I decided to give it a try, and dutifully dumped the requisite proportions into a plastic container, mixed it with water and a pinch of salt, marked the container with the date, and proudly took a photo to send to my friends as proof of my 'walking the walk'. I placed it into the oven with pilot light on, to provide a warm spot for the bacteria to do their magic.

Day 1- Open and stir. Day 2 - Open and stir. Day 3- Is that frothy bubbly bit on top the start of a proper starter? No, not yet (the recipe said at least 5 days). So, open and stir again. Day 3.. Day 4.. Day 5. Is it ready yet? Maybe, but this is the point where the recipe called for removing and discarding half the starter adding in more flour and water, and continuing the process.

Discard? Not on my life, no frugal housewife would do such a thing as to throw out that much as-yet-unstarted-starter. I decided, based on the urgings of half a dozen blogs, to try to make a whole wheat pizza using the discard instead of yeast. I had never cared for the yeasty pizzas that I had made before at home much anyway.

So, I mixed a batch of pizza dough up, and set it in a warm place to see if it doubled in size in a couple of hours. Alas, no such luck. It barely swelled up to a quarter more in size. I was running out of time though, to prepare dinner, so I pushed on gamely ahead, rolling it out.

M wandered into the kitchen. "Pizza!", her eyes lit up. "Can you bring me a couple of pieces when it's ready? I'll be in the basement for dance class."

Hubby wandered into the kitchen. He looked dubious at my plans for dinner. That's it- time to give him something to do other than gripe. "Please get the toppings and sauce on the pizza."I put him to work, as I finished unloading the dishwasher and started to put away the dishes in the sink.

The pizza looked perfectly respectable, and I put it in the oven, keeping a sharp eye on the cheese melting till bubbly on top. I took it out to check. The pizza seemed just a bit underdone, so back into the oven it went for a few more minutes.

Alas, even with the extra time, the verdict from Hubby and M was "This tastes like pizza roti, not pizza."So ended the grand experiment with the discarded starter and the pizza dough.

I had enough of the starter culture by this time, tasting it and finding in it the source of a certain bitterness that I couldn't mask, no matter what additional flavorings (garlic powder, cheese, etc) were added to the dough. Apparently, using whole wheat flour (especially hard red wheat) can result in a certain bitterness to the flour due to the bran. Some people like this, but it was too much for me and my family.

So, it was off to the sink drain for the remaining starter. No more sourdough dreams, just sour grapes!

I shall stick to my old tried and tested yogurt culture (smuggled into the country a long, long time ago), which I have kept going for several years, and the routine fermenting of my idli/dosa batter, which rises in about 10-12 hours pretty reliably without much fuss.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Fever Pitch

I needed to stop by a local T.J.Maxx store to pick up gifts for a friend's kid's first birthday party in the first week of March this year. So I headed out to the store after work, figuring that mid-afternoon would be a quiet time to get in and out quickly.

The parking lot was packed. I circled around trying to find a spot, ultimately snagging one not too far away. People were hauling large cases of beer from the next door discount beer outlet, so I figured that most of the crowd was there for that, maybe anticipating a game night.

I entered to the store and was shocked to see a rush of customers milling around the different departments. This was highly unusual.There seemed to be more people in the store than I have normally seen in the busy shopping weeks before Christmas. What was going on?

A couple of shoppers nearly crashed into me as I wove through to the children's clothing and toy section, quickly picked out my choices, lingered by the crockery to pick out a new coffee mug. I headed to the cash register line, breathing a sigh of relief that I would soon be out.

There was a long line, reminiscent again of the Christmas shopping line. I stood restlessly there, waiting for my turn, while a teen chatted quietly with her grandmother in Russian interspersed with English, ahead of me. The shelves were filled with Easter merchandise, even though Easter was more than a month away.

The whole atmosphere seemed tinged with a feverish urgency. I know that America is the greatest consumer nation, but this day of simple shopping seemed to take on a different cast, which I couldn't entirely explain. Rather than the joy of shopping, what I was seeing looked like a shopping frenzy of some sort.

A few days later, a similar quick stop at a grocery store for picking up a few essentials, and there was a palpable anxiety in the air. A completely cleaned out paper products aisle was the first clue to something strange going on. I was nearly rear ended on the way out of the parking lot by a crazy-eyed lady in an SUV trying to pull in next to my car. What in the world was going on?

On Friday the 13th, everything became clear. The evening news reported the first cases of coronavirus in the county and the rest was history, as the city, county and state authorities declared mandatory shut downs and stay-at-home orders from the following week.

A strange prelude to a new reality.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Colors of the Moon

After the Worm Moon, last night was the Pink Moon.

Actually, it has nothing to do with the color of the moon, which was a typically moonish yellow when close to the horizon, and whiter in the sky. The 'pink' comes from the pink of the moss phlox which blooms in profusion at this time of the year in North America, as the moon was named by the native Americans who observed the flowers.

Although, I did see one morning when the moon was an orangish, dare I say it, pink, that made it look like a sun rising in the west. A red moon setting, while in the east, the sky was just beginning to tinge a pale peach near the horizon of treetops.

 I spent a few fruitless days trying to capture good photos of the moon with my phone, here they are, in no particular order.The pinkish one was taken on April 7, the ghostly smear early this morning (April 8), which turned to astonishing brightness as the storm clouds of last night moved away.















And click here  for a professional photographer's better picture of the Pink Moon, taken on April 7, 2020, when it would have been almost full.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Masquerade

To wear, or not to wear a mask, that's the question...

With the current Covid-19 pandemic protocols of extreme hand-washing (20 seconds each time, 20 times each day or more), social distancing, shelter-in-place or lockdowns, the one thing that the western world has been wary of, is the dilemma of wearing a face mask or not, to help protect against the spread of the virus.

The authorities have been insistent that no masks are needed for the common man or woman in the streets. "It takes away precious resources for health professionals",  "It encourages carelessness.", "It may not be as effective if improperly worn.", go the usual reasons. All true, in some ways, especially if referring to the 'blown fabric' special masks that are reserved for doctors, nurses and other providers who are working with patients in very close proximity of their bodily fluids.

That's not to say though, that ordinary masks are anything, pardon the pun, to be sneezed at. These are the ones improvised or sewn from fabrics at home, that sewers and crafters have been madly making, in hopes of supporting the front-line medical providers in this new war against virus, since the news has been proclaiming their desperate and unmet needs for PPE and N95 masks. ("Knit balaclavas for soldiers fighting in the Crimea", comes to mind).

Eastern cultures such as China, Hong Kong, Singapore and others, have no problems with masks worn against air pollution, which can do double duty against germs. They happily wear them to protect themselves, there being no cultural interdictions, and in the process, are more likely to protect others, since masks of that variety are best to keep one's droplets to oneself.

Currently, the problem with mask wearing in the West is more cultural than medical, but soon, even
that may change. Recent studies in the wake of the coronavirus spread show that the virus may be able to spread even from simply breathing or speaking, let alone coughing or sneezing, and this, combined with the fact that many carriers are asymptomatic, is likely to end up persuading authorities that it's in the public interest to promote, maybe even enforce mask wearing.
 'To mask is the new black!', some ad campaign is sure to suggest. #BeBest might become #BeMasked.

P.S. I haven't started churning out new fabric masks for the family yet, am waiting for the official decree before I do so. But I do have a link to likely mask patterns saved away for the day.

Update: The official word is out, as the PA Governor has now tweeted that the general public should start to wear fabric masks to help slow the spread.  I made my first mask of the day from an old T shirt and elastic earlier, for hubby to go out grocery shopping, need to get to work on the ones for M and myself now.

Also: this CDC link has multiple types of simpler masks, the easiest being the no-sew version at the bottom of the page.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Birds of Spring

One afternoon, a few days ago, there was a heavy thunderstorm. Small bits of grape-sized hail pelted the wooden deck behind our house. I walked into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee.
Juvenile Cooper's Hawk
"Freeze", said my husband, standing at the sink. "Go round to the other window, and you will see what I am seeing here. It's huge!"
I peered into the other window, and there was a huge hawk sitting on the little gate we had that led to steps from the deck. It sat unmoving in the heavy rain pelting down, didn't seem to be in any kind of hurry to be flying off.
I ran to get my phone and managed to get a few photos and video of it, before it decided the gate's swaying in the wind annoyed it and swooped off.
Looking up the markings in my Sibley field guide, it appeared to most closely match with the picture of the Juvenile Cooper's Hawk, which is considered an uncommon bird in these parts.  I was delighted to have this close encounter with the avian visitor, who, no doubt, had been hanging around in hopes of preying on smaller birds that like to visit our bird feeder, before it got caught in the thunderstorm.

Great Horned Owl (Wikicommons)
On this morning's walk, there were no stars to watch in a clouded sky, nor earthworms to watch out for on dry roads. Signs of the dawn chorus have started though, relatively early in the year, with the warmer temperatures and blossoming trees. Today I heard an owl close to my home. "Hoo Hoo-hoo Hoo, Hoo!", it called insistently again and again.  A little while later, a counterpoint arose, a lighter owl voice calling out "Hoo Hoo-hoo, Hoo, Hoo!"
Another owl, what a surprise!

I stopped for a moment to record the call, and heard a third owl chip in to this duet. I wonder what they were talking about.

Take a listen to owls and other birds of spring by clicking on the link below.

Birdsong and Owls Spring 2020




Thursday, March 26, 2020

Necklace of Lights

After a few days of incessant clouds and rain, early this morning the skies cleared enough for the gorgeousness of the spring constellations to be visible.

I took the precaution of downloading a constellation app on my phone, not wanting to struggle to identify individual star names which I had long forgotten. Antares, Arcturus, Deneb, Altair, Vega...
To the south-east,  a loop of three bright planets. Venus or Jupiter, I wondered. I tapped open the phone app, and it confirmed that  I was looking at Jupiter, a noticeably more orange than red Mars, and Saturn.

The Big Dipper was overhead, with patchy cloud around it. I continued walking uphill to the highest point in my neighborhood, and then froze as I saw a stream of lights moving in a line, from Arcturus towards Vega. The moving lights continued, on and on for a good couple of minutes. My glasses were fogging up from my breath, and I removed them for a few seconds, still watching the now-blurry moving lights, not quite sure of what they might be.

High altitude aircraft? Drones? Perchance, even UFOs, aliens come to save earthlings from the follies of the coronavirus pandemic?

I pulled out my phone to see if I could capture the movement, but the optics weren't powerful enough to get a good image of the moving lights. The screen just seemed to capture unrelieved blackness. I popped the phone back into my pocket, and continued my walk under the starry skies, admiring the steady shine of the three planets whenever my direction took me towards them.

Coming back into the house, it struck me that what I saw might have been a sequence of linked satellites, so I googled those to find that what I seen was the Starlink Satellites, launched in December last year and January this year.

 Astronomical mystery of the necklace of lights solved!

Monday, March 23, 2020

King Baby

Mardi Gras fell on February 25, this year.

(Hlane13, Wikicommons)
Having been the lucky recipient of the King Baby from the cake that my manager brought into the office last year, I was obligated to bring a King cake this year.
I dutifully set my reminder for the date, and started scouring the internet for a suitable recipe to make at home. First stop, an elaborate concoction for the authentic version of the King cake, which seemed like too much work.
Next, an easier version that relied on purchased cinnamon pastry dough, and a few bottles or tubes of food coloring. But the recipe was not only easy, but had more than a few unsatisfied reviewers.
Next, the online search for a bakery that sold the authentic version nearby. Don't we have enough specialty bakeries that would carry that? Alas, the closest specialty bakery didn't list them on their website. I didn't want to take a chance on not finding one if I went there.
More searching, and at last, a few answers on some internet forum. 'Giant Eagle' has them. Or 'Shop n' Save', chimed in another user. I cheered up considerably, and put it on the grocery list for my next shopping expedition. I could always try the cinnamon pastry version if that didn't work out.
Sure enough, there were about a dozen King cakes right up in the front when I went there. The only wrinkle, for the very reasonably priced and delicious looking cake, was that this plastic King baby was huge in comparison with my King baby from last year, and was taped to the plastic container, not baked into the cake, as had been the case earlier.
The cashier glared at me as I asked her the obvious question about how to go about getting the baby into the cake "Maybe make a hole and put it in?" she suggested, rather gingerly.
So that's what I did, pushing it in carefully from under the cake after making a hole with a butter knife.
Mardi Gras day arrived, and I carried it triumphantly to the office, placed it in the common conference area, and sent out a group email "Come one, come all! Try your luck at getting the piece of cake with the King baby!" to paraphrase my more formal 'officialese' email.
I had even provided utensils, and plates, along with purple napkins to make it easier for the hungry hordes.  An hour later, I peeked at it to see how much was left. About 3/4 of it was gone, except for the large section of green frosted cake which harbored the King baby. People were avoiding Mr.Luck!
As it turns out, the King baby is viewed by my colleagues, not as the harbinger of good luck, but the annoyance of having to bring next year's King cake. So much for the tradition being upheld, of happily accepting the King baby, and bringing next year's cake!
The final piece with the King baby still lay forlorn and unclaimed as I left work. The next morning it had vanished, who knows where!

As for next year's King cake, will we even get one? It's all up in the air now...



Saturday, March 21, 2020

Worm Moon

 The Worm Moon played hide-and-seek with fluffy patches of cloud, as I continued down the road. Why is this called the Worm Moon, I wondered. It was quite chill that morning, so I had bundled up with my favorite scarf and walking coat( a much loved corduroy which had frayed so much near the pockets that I sewed a decorative scrap to conceal them, rather than discard it).
Elsewhere, stars shone sharply in clear areas of sky. The head of the Scorpion glittered to one side, the Swan and the Big Dipper elsewhere. I trudged along, head turned skyward.
The roads are always empty at this time, and once I get off the arterial ways, there are no cars to interfere with my attention to the sky.
A week later, and my morning walk turned into a gambling game with the rain clouds. "Will you pour on me, or won't you?" I stepped out in one such gap between the rains and headed up the smooth black asphalt that lines streets in my neighborhood.
There was no point in looking at the sky, so I looked down at the glistening wet road. Little thin, long streaks lined the road. Earthworms, traveling across, trying to get from the grass on one side to the other. Or, earthworms, following long established paths of their ancestors, just moving over the roads that were built over the earlier pathways of soil and untouched forest.
The moon was a banana crescent, with Jupiter and Saturn glittering nearby. Or maybe turning into a worm, a fat one.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Community Garden-2

A few weeks (maybe 4 or 5, I don't quite remember), my husband came back home all excited. "Time to go pick beans!" he said, beaming. We drove off the community garden with a large green bowl for the produce.
I had luckily thought to take a floppy sunhat, and we trudged through tall weeds lining the path to the plot. A quick glance at the plants showed us that there were beans and more beans, a few zucchinis starting to grow, and bountiful butternut squashes on our friend's side of the plot, along with towering corn and man-size tomato plants.
Picking beans was hard work, you have to squat down, lift up each plant gently and check under all leaves, carefully snapping each bean from its stem. Even though we had only a baker's dozen of those, it took me a full half hour to remove all the larger beans from them. I started to feel a new appreciation for those unnamed laborers who picked the masses of supermarket beans that I routinely buy. All that work, and probably not for much pay either!
A few weeks later, disaster struck the bean plants, in the form of the yellow Mexican jumping beetle. They ate the leaves right down to the lacy veins, and the plants stopped producing. But by then, we had already picked ample beans (about 10 lbs) from those, we were fortunate to have started the plants early enough that we had already harvested a decent amount from them. We just pulled out the plants and scrapped them in a nearby lot.
In the weeks that followed, other garden bounty included four humongous but surprisingly easy to cook zucchini( we gave away 2), large bunches of kale. Our friend chipped in with giving us a couple of butternut squashes and lots of end-of-season cherry tomatoes.
My little home garden produced a respectable amount of tomatoes, around 2 lbs, of which I gave away some to friends, slowly ripened and used up the rest. A chili plant that I had wintered indoors and set outside in the summer actually came back to life and produced a handful of fairly spicy chilis, so I was happy that I had managed to save it from the local groundhog last year. My husband also tried planting radishes in another sunny spot, and we feasted on some red radishes and greens with definitely more 'bite' in their flavor than the large bland ones we got from the grocery stores.
So another year of gardening is set to start soon, we will no doubt try some old favorites and maybe a new variety or two, maybe even some Indian vegetable favorites like bitter gourd (if I can get my hands on some certified seeds)
Can't wait for spring to get started on some seedlings!