Saturday, November 28, 2015

Boise Trip Report, Expanded Edition

A lost Vermeer
The mini-break to Boise was pretty fabu. We were gone only a few days but it feels much longer (in a good way) and that's nice. It was, our hostess Tish and I agree, one of the best Thanksgivings ever. Possibly I've reached the age where the interjection of eight college-age adults, and two slightly younger children at a gathering is a good thing. They're so darned lively, those kids, and they play so nicely together. When I was at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival last year, Yvon Chouinard said something about how "maybe this younger generation will fix things; we sure won't!" and while I occasionally shook my head internally at things  they said (Amazon! Walmart! NO!!!), in general the kids are all right. So that was good, as was dinner, as was the company of those at the grown-up table. Tish makes a mean Brussels sprout too. It was all good.

Of course, I was predisposed to be happy on Thursday after happening across a great horned owl in the park between Tish's place and the Boise Guest House on Wednesday. As we were walking en route to the Flying M I had noticed, from across the street, something large that seemed to be holding something in its talons. A thorough look around revealed the owl, posing obligingly, atop a building. Sadly, I didn't have my camera with me. When I returned fifteen minutes later, now equipped with camera, the owl had shifted to a less ideal tree--and now visibly had a dead squirrel in its clutches. Photos such as the one posted a few days ago resulted. Not brilliant lighting, partially obscured by branches, often with its head turned but still: clearly a great horned owl with dinner. So that was pretty cool.

My Man Shipton
Scott and I delayed our start on shift at the Thanksgiving Kitchen by tromping through a snowy bit of land where the many white-crowned sparrow photos were taken. We also watched a couple of hawks, most likely Cooper's, swooping about the area. Happily we did not see them take any of our sweet little sparrows. It was a fine expedition which had us referring to each other as Shipton and Tilman after we decided to complete the circumnavigation regardless of the possible danger. It was grand. (Holden Caulfield disapproves of the word "grand." It's the sort of word used by phonies. I've  just completed my latest re-reading of Catcher In The Rye. That is one fine, damned odd book, if you want to know the goddam truth.)

Some frozen leaves at Barber Park
Bottoms up mallards in the freezing Boise River
On Friday we went out to Barber Park where, oddly, I'd never been before. We didn't stay that long, since it was so damned cold, but I loved it and am now ever so eager to return. We saw  many kestrels, for one thing, none of them close enough for a decent photo but all of them close enough to admire through binoculars. The place was also thick with red-tailed hawks. It's no wonder we saw so few songbirds. Sadly, no owls.
  Later on Scott and I took a walk to visit the bookshops of Boise, visiting the always excellent Trip Taylor (Hemingway, Kingsolver, Simenon, Browning, and god knows what else purchased) and the also fine Rediscovered Books. I was pleased to see some familiar covers at Rediscovered.

 We flew back home this morning, stopping en route to the airport at the truly excellent Janjou Patisserie. Mmmmmm.

White-Crowned Sparrow Counting Game!

Home from Boise and so sleepy!

On Thanksgiving morning we took a walk in a snowy bit of vacant land (development sadly encroaching on all sides) where we followed the tracks of a deer for a while--until I realized that I was probably a lot less sure-footed than a deer and some of that terrain was steep and slippery. It was a lovely--gorgeous, even--snowy morning. We discovered quite the crowd of white-crowned sparrows, most of them looking as if their crowns had just come back from being starched and polished. We didn't realize how many birds were to be seen until some other people flushed them from the bushes. Two dozen or more birds took flight. There aren't that many in this photo, I don't think, but certainly there are a lot more than I realized when I snapped it. We were across a wee ravine (okay, so maybe it was more of ditch) so the quality is far from perfect, but see how many birds you can spot. (No fair looking at the name of the photo, and don't forget you can click on the image to get it larger.)

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Now we can bike any day in November

Some days are just perfect and this was just such a day. I could almost be converted to getting up early on weekends if days like this are the result. Oh, the fact that it was gobsmackingly beautiful weather probably contributed a great deal. Maybe having an actual plan for the day contributed as well.

 We were up before 8:00 a.m. (which counts as shockingly early, yes) so I could dig up the geraniums and get them--and the lawn furniture--shifted into the garage for the winter. Some of the geraniums live in pots; one of those pots is more than two feet tall and weighs about 100 pounds. That one requires some clever Scott engineering(tm) to shift from the patio in the back, across a stretch of lawn on the side and then some sidewalk in the front, and down the driveway into the garage. I always feel like we've worked a mracle when that particular item is shifted successfully. Scott swapped out the screens for storm windows too so we're truly prepared for winter now. Take that most efficient neighbors!

 But all the domesticity was done before 10:00 and a few hours later we--and our bikes--were on a bus heading for Ballard and the bakery case at Besalu. Oh, Besalu! How I miss you!

 After stocking up on ginger biscuits and croissants, we set out on the Burke Gilman for the UDistrict and the Fill. It was ever-so-exciting to encounter Madi Carlson leading a bike tour en route, though not so exciting as practically crashing over my handlebars several hours later at nearly the same spot.

Trusty steeds parked by the CUH
The Fill was fabu! The coots are back in the thousands and while there weren't thousands of cormorants, there were at least fifty, which I call a pretty good cormorant count. The water, the trees, and the light were all gorgeous and while there weren't a ton of species to be seen, what there was was cherce. The birds who like to winter over water in the area seem to be making their return: I'd practically forgotten that things like buffleheads, wigeons, and hooded mergansers existed so they were a lovely combination of new things and old friends all together.
Speaking of old friends, we met up with Alex who was out with Truman which was also quite fine. It's handy having a bird expert with you when you're trying to work out what an odd duck might be. (It turned out to be a male merganser with his hood down.) Truman is a handsome and well-behaved dog too, though when he's had enough, he's had enough. It could be that he didn't care for being used at bait to attract the red-tailed hawk.
Red-tailed hawk showing off the red tail
After bidding adieu to Alex we decided we weren't really all that cold so we took a stroll through Yesler Swamp where, again, the light was gorgous. We saw a ruby-crowned kinglet, more song sparrows, another kingfisher or two, as well as another great blue heron, plus a bald eagle which you would think would be plenty. But then, as we were leaving, I noticed something darting under a bush; after a moment the sweetest little bunny came back out to pose for some fading light photos. We warned it to watch out for raptors and then returned to our bikes.

The light was definitely fading, but we decided that riding back to Ballard for dinner at Oaxaca would be a good plan. Oh. Scott's front light turned out to be very weak and there was that "almost-over-the-handlebars" screeching to a halt business when I was trying to ride too far to the right on the Burke Gilman because some east-bound riders insisted upon riding two-abreast and there turned out to be a a pallet jutting out into the path but Bessie's brakes were up to the task and, odds are, the weight in the basket helped keep her from flipping. We stopped off at Gas Works and declared that it was some beautiful, this Seattle of ours.

Oaxaca was fabulous as usual and our Metro karma held as a D came along pretty quickly and contained no crazies. While the mileage doesn't get counted in my bike-in-the-rain stats, we're calling it just about 15 miles of biking and, as I said at the start, a simply marvelous sort of day.

Female red-winged blackbird in the blown cattails

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Bland bike update with a side of worm

I am maintaining my #1 status on my team, which could suggests that my teammates are slackers but really I think that "status" is determined by number of commute rides so as long as I keep riding to and from work every day, I should be fine. Of course, next week's holiday schedule might wreak a little havoc. But since Madi Carlson stated recently that I inspired her to ride a few days ago, well, my ego might need something to calm it down a little. I have enjoyed not riding in the rain for the last three trips; a slight chill is a lot more pleasant than actual precipitation. And, hey! Mountaineers Books has wormed (that's foreshadowing that is) its way up to #141 out of 505 teams.
Speaking of worms (that's a smooth transition that is), I record that tonight's salad included a live worm. A cute little green fellow, it was, wriggling on my plate. I guess when they say "organic" at the West Seattle Farmers Market, they really mean it.

And because the blahness of this post is just too blah, I add a random photo of a wren with an unripe cherry that I happened across while looking for other photos this morning. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

Separating the wheat from the chaff (Bike in the Rain Update)

Hey, will you look at that? I'm still #1 on my team though Doug has a zillion more miles than me. He's counting non-commute trips (as are most teams) while I'm sticking with our Captain-imposed rule of recording commute miles only. Half those commute miles are in the dark, I've come to realize, and most of them are in the wet as well. Increasingly, it's the cold, dark wet (or the wet, dark cold, if you prefer, which I don't). I've realized that biking in November isn't as much fun as biking in May, though I do love my sweet shoe lights. It takes longer for me to get out the door, whether that door is here at home or at work, and I'm a little more cautious as I ride over wet leaves in the dark. I worry a bit about whether I have quite enough lights on my bike and person. This evening when I got home I gave Bessie the wipe-down, cleaning, and re-greasing that I've been promising her for weeks. Filthy, she was too; I just hope the attention results in slightly more responsive brakes and a little less reluctance to shift when required.

But what about that wheat and chaff, you might ask. Well, I note that my team was #223 last Thursday while today we're #152. And, sure, maybe it's that other teams haven't recorded their miles recently but, while I can anyway, I assume that last Friday's windstorm kept a lot of other cyclists off their bikes while some of us just got onto our twenty-year-old steel steeds and pedaled our way to glory. Or at least to work and to the bar afterwards.

I'm not sure what I'm going to do when December rolls around, but I sort of suspect I'll add a few more blinking lights and continue to ride. While it's not the ride in the park that May is, it probably still beats the alternatives.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Bums of the Bird World

It's the first weekend of Cornell's Project FeederWatch which means that I spent a lot of this frigid day in the backyard, lab book, binoculars, and camera in hand, attempting to count birds which, unobligingly, do not stay in one place long enough for me to count beyond six or so. I know that some people get flocks of hundreds in their yard and I can say only that they must have much larger yards and also be phenomenal counters. The highest number I reached was "about fifteen" and that was thumbprints bushtits at the suet. Of course the bit of suet wasn't large enough for all of them to be at it at once and they kept hopping about but I feel almost confident about the fifteen number. There were probably more than the fourteen dark-eyed juncos I noted down but I couldn't look in every direction at once and those damned juncos, who so perfectly match the fallen magnolia leaves that cover the large garden bed, flit from plum to magnolia to ground to magnolia to fence to apricot far faster than I could count. I do love the way they flitter down to the ground like leaves, though. I could watch that all day.

 Part of me wonders just how truly important numbers reported by the likes of me might be (though, of course, Cornell insists citizen science makes all the difference). I feel a little like Ralphie with the Little Orphan Annie decoder ring though the birds aren't spelling out anything so crass as "Buy More Bird Seed" despite Wild Birds Unlimited being a sponsor. It's got to be a benefit, however, to encourage participants to become more aware of the birds in their own backyards regardless of what numbers are then fed into a giant computer database. I spent more time than usual seeing who comes to visit and I was rewarded with a fox sparrow right in my own tiny garden. I initally assumed it was a second song sparrow but fortunately the fantastic Mr Fox returned a few times so I could have a second and third look and, well, fox sparrow will be on my report. Also on the list: 2 Anna's hummingbirds, 1 Bewick's wren, 2 Steller's jays, 1 European starling, 1 song sparrow, 1 goldencrowned sparrow, 5 American goldfinches, 6 house finches, 2 black-capped chickadees, 3 chestnut chickadees (who knew?!), 1 northern flicker, 5 pine siskins, and those aforementioned 14 juncos and 15 bushtits.

But hey! What's a post about birds without bird photos? Just words. I'm working on a whole new guide for birds, featuring the angle one sees so often. As far as I know, there isn't a guide to bird bottoms on the market yet so I figure wealth and fame will soon be mine. More than those things, however, I want readers to identify the birds shown, from below, below. All the photos were taken in the backyard today so all the bires are on the list above.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Cycling update: I'm in 1st place!

Just because I sort of doubt I'll hold onto my "Team Leadership #1" status for long, I'm preserving the moment by posting a quick screen shot here. I'm disappointed to see that my team is #223 of 502 competitors, but then we're counting only work-commute trips rather than *all* our bike rides during November. A few members might be a little slow about recording their rides too.

The windstorm predicted this morning has yet to really materialize but the ride home was still a bit challenging educational. I learned that when your glasses get covered in raindrops it doesn't only mean that the world become sort of grey and dim; no, all those tiny drops turn into wee prisms so that headlights blind you entirely. "Wheeeee!" I did not say. I am glad I have the sweet shoe lights and am thinking now that I might need to upgrade my $3 consignment store jacket to something that is actually waterproof. And I definitely something that will block the rain  on my glasses a bit more, which none of  these helmets would do so much but that doesn't mean I don't want half a dozen of them now.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Mona and Monet

I am once more between books, having finished the latest iteration of Mona in the Desert a few hours ago. It is such a perfect and beautiful story. Heartbreaking, of course, and yet insisting upon love and hope as eternal truths. It is simply baffling to me, that I should live with a man who can create such amazingly beautiful worlds. Less cheery, of course, is living in a world where such perfect gems face such a battle to reach a wider audience. But this one, I say, this one no one could possibly turn away. Fingers crossed and all. Chapter Nine, I tell you, oh chapter nine . . .

Patience Quince fans may recognize these as Charolais cows; they live across from M.  Monet's place
But back to the Giverny Adventures! When last spotted our intrepid international cyclists were approaching Giverny. They passed a horse across the highway and continued on up through slight elevation gains, along ever-smaller roads featuring B&Bs and art galleries, passing the line of people pictured yesterday and also some parking lots, in search of someplace obvious to lock their bikes and a giant sign reading "MONET'S HOUSE HERE." This took them along a stretch of that previously referenced highway where traffic was largely nonexistent, to reach a spot with a bike rack, just as a gentle rain started to fall, or such is my memory anyway.

After locking up the bikes, perhaps with a few moments' pause to wonder who would be crazy enough to steal them, we walked along to find ourselves reaching the crowd in line we had passed earlier, noting as we did so, the parking lot, with bike racks, across the street which we must have passed ten minutes earlier. "Merde," we did not say, because, really, it wasn't that big a deal. Scott stood in line while I first took photos of the butterfly posted yesterday and then went across to the nearest cafe to buy some of the crappiest coffee to be found in all of France. Still, it was nice to have a snack while standing in line, for we had brought baked goods from Paris. (And I managed to collect a few extra sugar packets!)
Sewing cabinet wallpaper

 Monet's house is pretty small but oh! so very charming. There is a teeny tiny sewing closet which has the dearest wall paper (see right). The bedrooms are also charmant but it's really the kitchen that makes one want to remodel one's own house to match. (Seriously, some days later we were at a kitchen shop in Les Halles and Scott had to invoke what the weight would do to the expense of our baggage check to stop me from investing in all new copper pots and pans.) God, it was gorgeous, that man's kitchen.
Monet's pots and pans

Monet's tile
Looking out Monet's bedroom window, as one does
But, when you think about Monet's output, you don't remember his famous paintings of of interiors, do you? That's because he also had some amazing gardens. Even in late September they were gorgeous. Admittedly, there is a not insignificant staff of gardeners working to keep them looking nice for the tourists but still. You can't force nasturiums and sunflowers and the like to bloom out of season, can you? I don't know; maybe you can. All I know is that there were tons of beautiful flowers everywhere, and gobsmacking bees. Also a few charming chickens.

 You go through a tunnel to get to the water lily ponds which were just so damned much like stepping into a painting. (Aside: the tunnel was put in by some neighboring official or another; one assumes he got tired of having to slow to allow tourists to wander across the road and so voted some public funds to install a tunnel. One might be entirely mistaken about that.)  I may have written this earlier but I repeat it nonetheless; I don't know how Monet found time to paint; were I in his place, I would have found it impossible to stop looking long enough to pick up a paintbrush. It was a darned lovely spot. While we posed for photos on one of the bridges, a man in a boat punted his way through, clearing less than photogenic bits and pieces from the water.
We assume this was Monet's great-nephew who was very disappointed to learn he hadn't inherited the place but rather had to work to earn his keep.

 Eventually we had to make our way back towards Vernon, though we made stop or two en route--and yes, one of those stops was to admire a cat sitting on the hood of someone's car in the alley one cycles thorugh. And, since Scott mentioned them in yesterday's comment, I share also a snap of les cormorants:

We were pleased to get the bikes returned without incident and to have time for a quick beer while waiting for the train to take us back to Paris. 

Friday, November 6, 2015

No biking today so Paris and environs at last

Spoilery caption #1: En route to Giverny (with the world's crappiest bike)
Another sick day so another zero day for the November Bike Challenge. It's too bad, too; the weather seemed pretty ideal for biking today: no actual rain and no apparent wind. The forecast is for rain all weekend so I'll have to hope that it rains itself out before Monday morning.

Since I have no biking to report today, it seems a fine time to write about the one bit of biking that Scott and I did while in France. It was the day we went to Giverny which nearly didn't happen at all. I'd purchased the train tickets online and while I talked about how we should scope out the station from which we'd be leaving (St. Lazare), that just didn't sound like as much fun as whatever it is we did instead the day before. "How difficult can it be?" we rationalized. "We'll leave early so we have plenty of time to find the right platform. There must be a way to claim our tickets at the station." And so forth because, lacking a printer, we also hadn't been able to print out the e-tickets and I didn't have a smartphone on which to show them to anyone.
Spoilery caption #2: Butterfly on butterfly bush by the line to get into M. Monet's house
It might have all gone smoothly, too, if that wasn't the day that Paris' usually impeccable Metro system experienced serious difficulties, the exact nature of which we never did understand. We waited longer than usual at the Place de Clichy and when a train did arrive, it was packed full. People-with-their-faces-shoved-flat-against-the-glass full. We decided we still had plenty of time so we waited for the next train. Which took longer than usual to arrive and which, when it did show, was also packed. We shoved our way onto it anyway. It paused repeatedly en route, groaning with the effort, and with incomprehensible messages being repeated by the nice French lady who is the voice of Metro emanating from the speakers. Had we sensibly scoped out St. Lazare the day before, we would have known we could just walk to it in ten or fifteen minutes. Instead, we endured the stressful twenty-minute trip on Metro.

Once at St. Lazare we made the wrong guess about where the proper platforms would be and ran the absolutely wrong way. We reached an information desk where the woman understood enough English to inform us that we were in the wrong place and to give directions to reach the correct platform. By this time it was about seven minutes before the train was scheduled to depart. (Scott, it later turned out, misunderstood the time the train was scheduled to depart and assumed all along that we had already missed it.) "Did you understand any of that?" "Maybe." "And do you think she just hated us and deliberately sent us the wrong way?" "Possibly." Still we dashed, running past the mini-mall in the center of the station ("Hey, there's a Lush!" I thought en passant), and reached a point where we could see our actual train, still sitting there at Platform 9 3/4. There was quite a crowd in the ticket office and no way we'd get through it before the train was well and truly gone. There were also a bunch of ticket machines. How hard could that be? Well, it was more challenging than I like to admit, in part I am sure because we were so stressed. But we managed to extricate our tickets and then ran--again--to the train. We were close the last ones on and we couldn't find two seats together. For a while it seemed we would not find seats at all but I managed to convey, in the universal facial language of public transit, that if that suitcase didn't have a ticket maybe it shouldn't have a seat, and Scott did the same a few rows back and so we settled in nicely for the hour or so trip into the countryside.

 Say! Just getting onto the train is an absurdly long story, and the train doesn't even get one to Giverny; it stops in Vernon which is a charming little town where I would like to spend some time. In Vernon, you switch to bikes (unless you've arranged to take the tour bus and where's the sport in that?) It turns out, however, that the "bar that rents bikes across from the train station" isn't really immediately apparent from the trains station so it took us a few minutes to find that. We also found that Rick Steves' description of the bikes as broken-down rattletraps was, perhaps, overly generous.
Les velos!

The tires were half-flat and the seats tended not to stay where they were put, sliding down on the seat stem with irritating regularity. I rejected more than one bike while Scott simply accepted the first one handed to him. Finally, with a clash of gears, no helmets, and map in hand, we were off!
A few blocks later, we were lost. Wisely we circled around to a cafe and sat down to study the photocopied map more closely, over a couple of espressos. A photo opportunity presented itself as Scott sat marveling at how much less expensive espresso was in Vernon than in Paris. Or perhaps he was just reflecting on how long 7 kilometers could be on a bike that seemed unlikely to hold together for five blocks. (In truth, he was less critical of his bike than I was of mine; never have I appreciated Bessie so much as I did on that bike that rattled and shook nonstop.)
Fortunately, while it lacked a lot of street names and the like, the map did show the location of the post office which just happened to be half a block left of Scott's left shoulder in this photo so we were able to orient ourselves and head out in the right direction. And I remembered just enough snippets of information from my web-surfing of a few nights earlier to put us onto the "path that looks like it's taking you through people's backyards" to keep us going the right way. After a while, the signs became less subtle. . .

The line
Oh, we still managed to add a bit of distance, what with not wanting to admit that the line we passed at one point was the line we would have to be in, but it all worked out, and Giverny, about which I shall write in a later installment, was absolutely charming and wonderful.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Testimony for the Cycling Jury

Today I'm home sick with the weirdest illness. Physically I feel a bit spacy and achy with near constant ringing in my ears; but the main symptom seems to be excessive sensitivity and paranoia. So, lots of sleep and no biking to report for Thursday.

The other morning another stranger slowed (in the process of passing me, yes) to compliment me on the boot lights.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Sweet Shoe Lights (Still not Paris)

It's  the "Ride in the Rain" challenge this month around Seattle at least. It's possible it may be a nationwide thing as well, but I've not bothered to look in that because, well, I'm in Seattle so it's here that matters to me. As of 6:22 p.m. of the first work day, I'm 100%. (We're counting only work days here, not weekends, okay?) On the way home it occurred to me that I might be better about continuing with this business, which is a lot more challenging than May's "Bike to Work," if I kept some sort of public record so that's what this is: my public declaration that I'm doing this and that I'll keep track of how I do here. Sure, there are maybe a dozen people who read this blog but that's how many you need for a jury, right?

 The real reason, I confess, for this going public business is actually "sweet shoe lights" because that's what a fellow cyclist said to me as he rode up next to me as I was waiting for a gap in traffic this evening. And they are pretty sweet shoe lights or, to be more precise, lightweight halo overshoes. I bought them yesterday at West Seattle Cyclery when Scott and I ducked in there to get out of the rain before getting serious about the West Seattle Farmers Market, thus demonstrating, quite forcefully, that the farmers market benefits the local businesses. (It also demonstrated a few hours later that I'd better be good about staying on a budget until my next paycheck.) S'anyways. The idea was to keep my shoes dry while riding but it's really the blinky red lights in the heels that made the purchase inevitable because I don't worry as much about getting wet as I do about getting run over (as the ever-increasing number of lights on my bike and person demonstrates).

The blinky boots (not blinking because this is a still photo. Unfortunately)
I took my usual route on the way home this evening but I won't be doing that again, not until spring. The park I like to wend my way through turns out to be pitch dark--which doesn't stop people from having their dogs there, romping about. Between worrying about going off the path and crashing downhill and worrying about colliding with a bounding dog, I found it wasn't so relaxing. It's the duller but presumably safer (as long as my blinky heels are working!) streets for me this month.

There's more to this evening's challenges: the red blinky light on the back of Bessie's basket was fussy about working before I even left the parking lot so that required a few minutes with my trusty Swiss Army knife before I could set off into the dark of the night. Then Bessie slipped her chain as I was shifting down to the absurdly low gear I require to get over the West Seattle Bridge and fell over as I was fixing that, wrapping herself about the pole I'd leaned her against. As I was wrestling her back upright, after putting her chain back on, a cyclist slowed to ask if I had everything in hand so it turned out to be a sort of nice thing since I do like the way other cyclists so often show concern. (That I am so often in a condition to elicit concern is less great.)

That's a grand total of just over four miles -- and just about 400 feet of elevation gain. Phew! I need a cocktail!