Saturday, March 6, 2010

Birds I'm Watching: Solano County, California

I joined a group of birders from the Madrone Audubon Society today on a trip to Solano County, mostly along Putah Creek, near Lake Solano Campground. The group was hoping to find the pygmy owls that have been reported in the area recently, and I was hoping to see an American Dipper and a Lewis's Woodpecker, but no luck with any of these birds. I did get a new bird, however, a Phainopepla--a rather drab female, but a new bird nevertheless. Other highlights included good views of a green heron, good views of Hermit Thrushes, good views of Wood Ducks, a Pileated Woodpecker sighting, an immature Golden Eagle, two active Bushtit nests, Common Goldeneyes engaged in courtship behavior, and two rather oddly colored birds--one a Canada Goose that looked like it had some Greater White-fronted Goose in it and a male Bufflehead that looked like a first-year male (broad white strip at the bottom of the area that is usually white rather than a full white bonnet) but with the top of the bonnet beginning to turn white; the upper part of the head where normally white was a dappled gray.

The group saw 50 species, of which I saw 48 (add one if you count the numerous Peacocks and Peahens). At and around Lake Solano Campground: Belted Kingfisher, Buffleheads, Greater Scaup, Red-winged Blackbird, American Robin, Mallards, Canada Geese, Black Phoebe, Red-shouldered Hawk, Phainopepla, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Double-crested Cormorant, Downy Woodpecker, Violet-green Swallow, Tree Swallow, Dark-eyed Junco, Wood Duck, Scrub Jay, Great Blue Heron, Green Heron, American Crow, Raven, Nuttall's Woodpecker, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Oak Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Acorn Woodpecker, Bushtits, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Pied-billed Grebe, Cedar Waxwings, Snowy Egret, Western Bluebird, Bewick's Wren, Spotted Towhee, Common Goldeneye, American Wigeon, Song Sparrow, Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Lesser Goldfinch, Turkey Vulture, White-crowned Sparrow, Lincoln's Sparrow, Northern Mockingbird, and House Finch--the last two seen by the group, but not by me (forty-six species at this location).

At the spot marked as Fishing Access No. 2, we saw: A large group of Common Goldeneyes engaging in courtship behavior (the males bending their necks back, touching their backs, and then thrusting their necks forward), Buffleheads, Double-crested Cormorant, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Bushtits, California Towhee, Orange-crowned Warblers, Downy Woodpecker, Wood Ducks, Scrub Jays, and Mallards. Heard Nuttall's Woodpecker and a Wrentit. The immature Golden Eagle was at Fishing Access No. 3. (The Golden Eagle, Orange-crowned Warblers, California Towhee, and Wrentit brought the group total to 50.) All in all, a good day.

The photos show the two oddly-colored birds. The "Canada Goose" (upper photo) and the Bufflehead (lower photo) are pictured.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Movies I'm Watching: The Best Movies I've Never Seen

I recently came across a reference to Leonard Maltin's 151 Best Movies You've Never Seen (Harper Studio, 2010). The title is designed to be provocative, to make you say to yourself "I bet I've seen a lot of them." And that's what I said to myself. I see a lot of movies, including fairly obscure ones, and I watch a lot of older films.

I looked the book up on Amazon and found myself humbled by the table of contents: I had seen only one of the 151 films on the list. Oh dear. I did a little searching, and found two similar books. One was Richard Crouse's The 100 Best Movies You've Never Seen (ECW Press, 2003). I have seen six of the films recommended in that book--somewhat better. The other was The 100 Best Films to Rent You've Never Heard Of (St. Martin's Griffin, 1997). I have seen 13 of the 100 recommended there--even better. Still, I have to admit that I'm surprised there are so many purportedly worthwhile films in these three books that I have yet to see--and there is very little overlap on the lists.

I feel a project coming on.

What sort of project? First, I clearly need to see some of these selections. Second, recommending obscure favorites is a game that anyone can play. I could recommend a few of my own. This is beginning to feel like a dual-layer project....

No film is on all three lists. Eight films are on two of the lists: Beyond the Valley of the DollsBubba Ho-TepThe Devil's BackboneDelicatessenHedwig and the Angry InchKind Hearts and CoronetsPeeping Tom, and Two-Family House. As I have seen two of these (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Kind Hearts and Coronets, I think I know where to begin.

For a list of some of my personal favorites that few people seem to know, see my following post on the subject of movies.

Plants I'm Growing--First Blooms: California Poppy (2010)

The first California poppy (Escholzia californica) of the year bloomed in the garden today. It was a rather drowned-looking single blossom, although today we had a lull in the rain. The first California poppy opened on March 19 in 2009. So, a year according to this plant was 351 days.

Also, first blooms today on the Franciscan wallflower plants  (Erysimum franciscanum) I picked up at one of the plant sales at the Strybing Arboretum in the city last year. These bloomed on February 20 in 2009. A year according to this plant was therefore 378 days. The poppy produced a short year, the wallflower a long year. Interestingly, the average of the two values is 365.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Wines I'm Drinking: 2001 Château de la Rivière Fronsac

Deep medium red, tending toward brown, suggestive of a little age. Very nice bouquet. Cocoa. Leather. Violets. Something decidedly musky as well. Not long on fruit. Rather astringent and tannic at first. Quite restrained. Austere even, but cleanly made. Not at all unpleasant, but at first seems to have no especially endearing qualities either. Initially seems rather drab. I had my doubts that this wine would open up at all, but with a little time I began to notice that the scent of candy apples had joined the fray and some of the initial astringency began to fall away. The initial suggestions of cocoa and violets became more assertive on the nose. On the palate, I began to enjoy a lingering sweetness offset by persistent, spicy, fine-grained tannins suggestive of nutmeg and with a hint of bitter chocolate on the finish. This is a subtle, delicate wine. It's almost certain to baffle wine drinkers that need a knock on the head with a bowl of spiked fruit punch to enjoy their wine, but it's worth a try. Just don't crowd it. Serve it with foods that are equally delicate and in a setting that allows you to pay attention to the wine. It may be at its best just sipped, alone. Not a self-promoting crowd pleaser by any means, but interesting nevertheless. I liked this more the more time I spent with it. $14.99 at Trader Joe's, which seems a fair price. Recommended--with the above caveats.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Plants I'm Growing: Just Because It's Pretty

Nothing much to report, really, but the back garden was very pretty in the rain today--another 1.5 inches fell last night and nearly another three quarters today. Visible in the photo are two varieties of rosemary in bloom, the golden currant (Ribes aureum) that recently started blooming  (back left), the dwarf nectarine (pink), the dwarf peach (darker pink, mostly obscured by the foreground tree), and Daphne odorata. The tree is a coral bark Japanese maple "Sangokaku." Also visible is the stone wall at the back of the yard. Beyond the wall are the grape vines, but they are hard to see in this view. The beehive is clearly visible in the middle of the picture, against the wall.

Just because it was pretty today in the rain.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Plants I'm Growing--First Blooms: Cytisus Scoparius

The first blooms opened on the Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius) called "Moonglow" today, which seems very early. As is so often the case, only one or two buds have opened--well ahead of the main rush of flowers, but I record today as the first day. This plant bloomed last year on March 24, so these are quite early. A year according to this plant was 343 days, one of the shorter years the plants have so far calculated. The median has been around 362 days.

First blooms today also on Prunus tomentosa, or Nanking cherry, a small bush cherry.

Television: Why I love the Olympics

Since the start of the Winter Olympics--a little more than two weeks ago--I've been thinking about the meaning of the games, as one does every four years or so. I'm always mildly surprised by my own interest in the competitions, as I'm generally not a fan of sports; the Olympics are one of the few sporting events I look forward to and watch as much as I can. A fair number of people claim to hate the games, but I was heartened to see that a Google search on "Why I hate the Olympics" returns only 40,000 hits, while a search on "Why I love the Olympics" gets 139,000 hits. I decided to poll my friends and acquaintances to see why they feel the way they do about the games. I know the Vancouver Olympics are over now, but I'm still watching the portions my brother was able to tape for me (don't worry Olympic Commission, it's for private use--I have no TV service--and I plan to erase the tapes after viewing).

Talking to friends, there appears to be quite a homogeneity of opinion about both the appeal and about what turns people off. Most people who say they hate the games say they dislike the behavior of nations that attempt to breed athletes from absurdly young ages in national "medal factories." These national programs seem to arouse the same indignation as sweatshop child labor, and rightly so. The Olympics haters point to the secretive behavior of Olympic committees worldwide and the sometimes absurd protectiveness of the IOC of its trademarks and other rights. They point to the taint of money in the form of advertising and sponsorship that has attached to the games. They call the games elitist and object to investments governments make to host the games or support teams at taxpayers' expense. They point to the nationalism the Olympics can foster.

I am a fan of none of these things. In particular, I dislike the nationalism the games create. National pride is one thing, and not a bad thing necessarily, but nationalism is too often used as an excuse for the re-writing of history by people in power at the expense of people that have none. (In one of those odd little coincidences in life, I just read an excellent review in the most recent New York Review of Books that touches on this very subject--the misuses of history*.) Even some athletes profess to dislike the games--saying that World Cup events are the true test of the greatness of an athlete. In particular, they seem to resent the public's focus on a single set of competitions that happens only once every four years. (Yet, these same athletes seem to want the Olympic gold medal very much--often very, very much.)      

Most people who enjoy the games point to one thing; the hard work and dedication of individual men and women aiming to become the best a human being can be at bobsledding, or ski jumping, or javelin throwing, or just running fast. It seems a good thing to dedicate a lifetime to--or the best part of a lifetime.  Sport interests me when it is sport at its best--people at their best. And so I watch and I cheer for the winners--regardless of what country they come from.

But, there is another thing. Call me sentimental, but the very idea of the Olympic games--at least of the ancient Olympic games--still seems a noble one to me, regardless of how it has been altered over the years or tainted by this or by that. As a child, I loved learning that the whole Greek world was supposed to have laid down arms during the games. I first came across the idea reading A Child's History of the World (V.M. Hillyer, first published in 1924). I see the book is still in print. That doesn't surprise me. It was a delight to read. I remember pulling it out of the big dark wood bookcase with leaded-glass doors in our house in Dayton to start reading it, at my mother's suggestion--she had enjoyed it as a child. It was her copy that I read. I imagine it's been revised, rewritten, brought up to date. If I were to read it now, I might see the stories in an entirely different light, but I remember thinking then--I must have been about 10 or 11--that dropping everything for the games was a special idea.

Humanity having the good sense--even if occasionally, once every fours years--to set priorities in so hopeful a fashion is an idea to be celebrated, fervently to be wished for, even if halting all conflict is not achievable today or never in reality has been. By keeping a feeble flame lit under a vision of us as beings that are better than we actually are, we are given something to strive for. Imperfect as the Olypmics are, and although in modern times the games have been put off in order to fight wars--turning on its head the idea that so struck me as a child--the modern Olympics continue to suggest that we can be better if we try. For that reason and because of the phenomenal work of the athletes and the excellence of their performances, I love the games.

*"Drawing the Wrong Lesson," by Max Hastings, a review of Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, by Margaret MacMillan. The New York Review of Books, Volume LVII, No. 4, March 11, 2010. In another coincidence, this review mentions the movie Zulu, which I have just written about elsewhere in these pages.

[The Olympic rings are a trademark of the International Olympic Committee. Their use here is solely illustrative. No affiliation exists or is claimed between this blog and the IOC or the Olympic Games. It is not the author's intention to suggest endorsement by the IOC. Use is intended simply to visually alert the reader that the subject of this post is the Olympic games. (The need to say this sort of thing is one of the things people who hate the Olympics hate most about the Olympics.)]

Monday, March 1, 2010

Food I'm Eating: The Great Yogurt Taste-off (Now up to 18!)

I just wanted to point out that I've added four more yogurts to the taste comparison--the last four on the Part IV page. I've now tasted 18 different vanilla yogurts. One of the four new ones was a real stand-out--perhaps the most delicious of all 18 I've tasted*. If you missed the yogurt taste-off, start with the Introduction page.

*[Update: Unfortunately, this was an error on my part. While the yogurt in question is undeniably delicious, it turned out to be an inappropriate comparison as it was not a low-fat or nonfat yogurt. See the article for details.]

Miscellaneous: Colin

There are too many people named Colin in the US these days. When I was a child, Colin was an unusual name here. I was teased. Kids called me a girl, saying my name was "Colleen." They had never heard the name Colin.

In my birth year of 1960, only 7% of names given to boys in the US were more uncommon, according to a Facebook application that rates your parents on the originality of the name they gave you; mine got an A+. Getting teased was the downside--and there was never a "Colin" on the racks of those little license plates for bicycles with first names on them. The upside was that when I heard or saw the name Colin, it almost always belonged to me. Now, men and boys named Colin pop up all over the place--which can be confusing.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Plants I'm Growing: First Blooms--Dwarf Nectarine

This is to note that the first buds on the dwarf nectarine behind the house opened yesterday, or February 27. The little tree will soon be flocked in pink, looking like a cupcake. The plant bloomed on March 5 in 2009, so a year according to this plant was 360 days. So far the average year calculated by the plants in the garden has been a little over 360 days.
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