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Baltimore by the Sea

Sunday, February 14, 2010


Gulls and Gannets against a bright blue beats yesterday's cold gray sky

What a difference a day makes. Yesterday the air was frigid and the snow was flying. Contrarywise, today was bright and sunny - and I found my parka – on the rental car floor, where it had wickedly disguised itself to look like carpet. Aw shut up - it could have happened to you too if you had a rental car and couldn't figure out how to turn on the knobless interior lights.

It was a different day birdwise too. Whereas yesterday the birds seemed as cold and forlorn as we did, today loads of bird species were out and about, showing off. A huge flock of gulls as we maneuvered out of the harbor hid a Little Gull, a species I’ve only ever seen at the Hudson Bay in Manitoba.

I stared at gulls and gannets, and finally, to make my life easier, I asked a guide to point out a Lesser-blacked Back Gull when one showed up – and happily, one did. The bird didn’t look radically different from other gulls, but I know I’ll always be able to recognize them, at least in winter plumage.

There were also Greater Black-backed Gulls, which I enjoyed getting some decent shots of. These were not lifers but they certainly were handsome, dark mantled gulls.

Greater Black-backed Gull

A second lifer for the day winged its way onto my life list – when a shout went up for a Great Skua, that shot by on the horizon quickly, but not too quickly for me to get in a few 'better-than-a-poke-in-the-eye' shots. Hurrah!

Fast moving Great Skua - LIFER!

We sailed along, enjoying the winging gulls and gannets, and the captain announced we were drawing near the Gulf Stream. I thought he could tell we were near it, based on our distance from the shore or some such. As it turned out, he could see the Gulf Stream - SEE IT! I was flummoxed – off in the distance I could spot the green ocean we sailed over, abruptly changing to a deep blue on the horizon. As the boat shot along, the blue grew closer and closer.

The indigo blue marked the start of the Gulf Stream

50% Gulf Stream and 50% regular green ocean

The Captain said the point of traveling all the way to the warm Gulf Stream was it ran up against the colder ocean water. That results in an upwelling of the cold water and all the nutrients carried within. That reminded of one of the best Pelagic trips I ever made near the Farallon Islands off San Francisco. There was an upwelling of cold water there too, which meant dozens of Humpback and Blue Whales feeding on the up welling of krill, plankton and nutrients.

We were quickly rewarded for the long slodge from shore - tiny little black & white Dovkies, pelagic alcids, smaller than robins, darted up off the water surface as we approached. Yes. A lifer. WHOOO HOOOO!

At last, Dovekies!
A solitary Dovkie flutters along

There were dozens of little Dovkies, in tiny groups of two or three 'working' the zone between the green Atlantic and blue Gulf Stream waters, where food was plentiful. The captain said he saw an Audubon's Shearwater too, but it was so far off in the distance I couldn't even get in a glimpse of it.

There were other surprises too, a sea turtle - and a Manta Ray, that floated just below the surface, like a shadowy ghost.

The underwater specter is a Manta Ray

It seemed we no sooner arrived at the exciting Gulf Stream, than it was time to turn about and head back to shore. I totally wish some sea captain on the Hatteras Coast could be convinced to run overnight birding trips in the manner of the Pacific San Diego's Searcher. How fun would it be to be able to just lob out the chum and relax watching the Gulf waters as dusk approaches? Oh well! Maybe some day such a trip will be offered and I'll have the energy, money and enthusiasam to enjoy it.

Before I knew it, we were headed back into the harbor. Brants, floated about, giving me one last chance for a few crap photos.

Really, I could use another dozen trips off the Hatterass, and hopeful those will happen in the next year or two. Cross my fingers! The day after tomorrow it's back to Sac o' tomatoes. Bugger.

First Day off the Hatteras Coast

The weather, as I wish it was that first day off the Hatteras Coast

I've had my heart set on a Atlantic Pelagic trips for many years. So when I woke in the pre-dawn hours in my Hatteras North Carolina motel room, I was very excited. I wasn't put off by the sound of rain beating on pavement outside. I could hear the wind too, and I supposed this morning's winds were the sort that helped get the Wright brother aloft.

Still, when I stood under the awning of a small closed shop, on the dock with several other birds an hour later, I was uneasy. Everyone else was far better clothed than I was - and no wonder! I was only wearing my down parka lining. I had no clue where or what happened to my parka shell. I had spent a good 20 minutes hunting for it before leaving the motel, but my beautiful navy blue parka was nowhere to be found. For all I knew it was back in the Raleigh motel I had stayed in on my first night in North Carolina.

Wet, Cold, Bundled birders, and HAPPY to be there!

The other thing I was thinking, was "I hope today's Saturday trip is canceled". I suspect that's what most of the other shivering birders was thinking too. The reasoning was, not only was it a particularly cold, windy and rainy Saturday, but the Pattenson's game plan was for 2 scheduled birding trips taken over a span of 3 days - Saturday, Sunday and if necessary from a canceled weather canceled trip, Monday. So Monday is the 'just in case of crap weather' day. How could weather get much worse than today's overcast skies, wind and rain? If we skipped today's trip, we might just score better weather for Sunday and Monday.

Gray Skies later on that Saturday afternoon, Day I of the pelagics

No such luck! Our skipper and trip leader Pattenson said the trip was on. I suspected Pattenson wanted his Monday free, but what the heck - maybe the weather would grow worse Sunday and Monday, and today would be my only one shot at the birdy laden waters off North Carolina.

Soon we were headed out to sea. We all sat in the ensie cabin of the smallest pelagic vessel I've ever traveled on; the Stormy Petrel. The passengers stared at each other and chated from cold as much as conversation. There were no comfy dining tables as I've experienced on most of the pelagic trips I've taken - there was only a horse-shoe shaped bench with space underneath for stowing our gear. I didn't feel annoyed about the tiny space - it only made me realize how easy and spoiled we are in California. And more importantly than the size of the boat's interior was that we were not overloaded with passengers. I've been on Shearwater pelagics that were so jammed full of passengers I would often miss viewings of birds because there were so many birders we had to practically climb over each other to access a view.

I was shivering away, when I noticed whenever someone entered or left the cabin, a flurry of snow flakes blew in. It was snowing on the ocean! Well 'DUH'. I suppose I have spent my life not ever thing such a thing happens. Come on, how often are snowmen seen on the ocean?

A single, cruising Northern Gannet with gulls

Birdwise, I was cheered by the sight of hundreds and hundreds of Northern Gannets, which are snowy, showy white seabirds with goofy looking bills and a goofier squeals. They sound like airborne bathtub toys. Click on the video below to hear some mid-Atlantic birdie noise.

At one point when I dared to leave the warmth of the tiny cabin, there was a stowaway! Somehow a gannet managed to land on board. Poor little thing was rather pathetic in its over sized webbed feet. Finally a deck hand lady picked up the bird - being careful to hold that razor sharp beak shut, picked up the bird and lobbed it overboard. The bird flew away, not the worse for its ship side pelagic adventure.

The Stowaway

Gannets swarming like bees over a nearby vessel

Wet, the coldest I can ever remember being in my life, but damn it, I got one lifer for the day, a small ocean going bird with a Jimmy Durante schnoz, the Razorbill! We ran across several of the birds, and I was thrilled to see them.

a lifer species; Razorbill

Another little Razorbill

What the skies looked like on day I - as gray as the ocean waters

So day one of my 2 days of pelagic trips ended. Score one lifer bird, with a few crappy photos - the Razorbill. Will I add some lifers tomorrow? We'll see.

Proof that it snowed on that first day

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Touching Flight in North Carolina

Mosaic at Raleigh/Durham Airport

Bright and early on the morning of the 12th, I woke in my hotel room in Raleigh North Carolina and hit the highway, driving north in my rental car. I was indirectly headed for the outer banks of Hatteras, but first I wanted to visit a dismal spot.

The spot wasn’t too dismal really, that was just its name. The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

Best name for a swamp, EVER!

To get to the Dismal Swamp I had to drive north and into the state of Virginia. I had never been to either Virginia or North Carolina, and it took the prospect of birds to get me to visit either state.

When I arrived at the Dismal Swamp, I looked around for the visitor’s center, and didn’t think I’d found it, until I realized it was there, only on a first viewing, it seemed to be disguised as a private residence.

Cleverly disquised Visitor’s Center

The visitor center was small in size but to counteract that, its employees were big on information. I asked the lady volunteer where I might get in an hour or two of a nature walk. She recommended a mint new wooden boardwalk, that had only been completed in the previous months.

Who can resist the call of the wild... I mean, souvenirs.

I only bought one, ensie little cloisonn̩ pin, of a Prothonatory Warbler Рa bird certainly not present on the swamp in winter. Speaking of winter, it was Рproof being that the swamp was frozen, I kid you not!

Do you reckon they're ice skating in hell?

Soon I was walking down the boardwalk. The dominant bird, perhaps because of the weather, was woodpeckers of the Hairy, Red-bellied and Pileated sorts.

New Boardwalk Winding Through the Swamp

The swamp was fascinating. I loved the cypress - or at least that is what I think the trees were - the boardwalk was so new it hadn't had informational signage added to it yet.

Great? Sure. Dismal? Sure looked the part.

Aside from numerous woodpeckers, the only other visible bird was a Carolina Wren, that was singing it's teeny heart out.

Crap Photo? Yeah - click and/or squint to see Carolina Wren

I enjoyed my walk, then got back in the rental car and headed south, to Hatteras.

A couple of hours later, when I saw the entrance to the Wright Brothers National Monument, I bubbled over with excitement!

Flight, the human kind, began here.

After paying my enterance fee, I circled the humongous hilly mound known as Kitty Hawk - where Orville and Wilbur Wright, from Ohio, came out to test their 'aeroplane' contraption on the windy low hills of Kitty Hawk. I was so excited and moved by the thought I was tromping around where human flight got it's upward start, I was on the sniffly edge of being blubbery teary mess for my entire visit.

Cool View of Monument from the Bottom of Kitty Hawk

To my total delight, there was on the back side of the huge monument, a statue - of sorts - honoring the first flight. It was bronze, it was awesome, and I mean that from the bottom of my altitude loving heart.

Bronze Statue and figures

Behind the Bronze aeroplane are joyous Bronze First-flight Witnesses

When I had completed sniveling my way around Kitty Hawk, I went to the visitor center. There I found loads of great stuff, including a full size model of the 1901 flying machine.

Life size Copy of the Wright Brother's Aeroplane

The visitor's center also honored other firsts of aviation. My favorite was a young woman I first heard of the only time I visited the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington D.C. - Bessie Cole! The first licensed Black Aviatrices.

Spunky, Aerialist, Bessie Coleman

There was also a painting of Tuskeegee Airmen.

Those Magnificient Men with Their Flying Machines

Thing is, it may be 2010, but face it, in the great scheme of things, 1901 wasn't that long ago. I mean, my father was born only 7 years after the invention of flying. I can practically reach back and touch the world's first aviators.

Next I was off to my hotel down the Hatteras Coast in Sandy Bay. I wanted to get to bed early so I could be alert and ready for the first of two ocean roaming pelagic trips I was taking over the coming three days. I couldn't wait to find myself hanging over the deck, aiming my binoculars at ocean going birdies.

The usual sort of, pastel colored, high off the
ground home, on the Hatteras Outer Banks

[Management wishes to point out, Ms. Miller discovered a fascinating aspect of The Dismal Swamp is it was used by Underground Railroad and in fact, many runaway slaves lead their lives there for up to 30 years, hiding and building homes for themselves and their families in the swamplands. Management is disappointed that no hint of the swamp's rich history was found on the actual premises, but maybe Ms. Miller didn't exactly scour the place looking for historical tidbits. In honor of slaves who tramped through, or lived in the swamps, here is a poem about it by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (proof someone knew what the heck was going on there amid the cottonmouths)].


In dark fens of the Dismal Swamp
The hunted Negro lay;
He saw the fire of the midnight camp,
And heard at times a horse's tramp
And a bloodhound's distant bay.

Where will-o'-the-wisps and glow-worms shine,
In bulrush and in brake;
Where waving mosses shroud the pine,
And the cedar grows, and the poisonous vine
Is spotted like the snake;

Where hardly a human foot could pass,
Or a human heart would dare,
On the quaking turf of the green morass
He crouched in the rank and tangled grass,
Like a wild beast in his lair.

A poor old slave, infirm and lame;
Great scars deformed his face;
On his forehead he bore the brand of shame,
And the rags, that hid his mangled frame,
Were the livery of disgrace.

All things above were bright and fair,
All things were glad and free;
Lithe squirrels darted here and there,
And wild birds filled the echoing air
With songs of Liberty!

On him alone was the doom of pain,
From the morning of his birth;
On him alone the curse of Cain
Fell, like a flail on the garnered grain,
And struck him to the earth!

Sunday, February 07, 2010

A Visit with Judy and Julia.

Barbara and Tante Judy

My buddy Barbara and I haven't had a visit since the Hen Party last September - an unbelieveably long time for us. We had a great time catching up with our doings in Fairfield. Then we drove over her Aunt Judy's pretty home in the Napa Valley for an overnight stay. It was a great visit - we chatted from noon to midnight - literally! I haven't stayed up that late in ages.

At the risk of presenting another 'food and friends' post here I must carry on about the food. Ok, I admit, it's my choice to focus on the food when visiting, but when visiting with Tante Judy, how could I not be so inclined? She has fed me the only Julia Child recipes I've ever had the great pleasure to dine on. See an example of Judy's talent just below. I mean, could Julia have made a prettier presentation of her Cheese blintz with Cranberry sauce, sour cream and a dusting of lemon zest? I think not.

Judy & Julia Present: Cheese Blintz - Yummm...

Judy is Barbara's Aunt. I've know Judy since I was around 21 years old and visited with her family around the holidays with the Albertson family. Not to sound greedy, but very-nearly my first memory of Judy was her making homemade truffles at Thanksgiving - home made truffles were an unknown concept for me - and she let me have the bowl of gateau au chocolat and cocoa powder - the equivalent of letting 'moi' lick the spoon. I was in love with Judy in an instant - yes, sadly, my affection can be bought for chocolate. But then, again, I'd love Judy anyway, she's one great lady.

Judy - on second thought, sweets or no, I love her

Judy's "Mr. Entertainment Committee" - Nicholas

[Management appologizes for Miss Miller who upon returning from a short trip discovered she neglected to post this blog entry before leaving. Sorry for the delay.]

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Muse is Dead, Long Live the Muse!

Haven't tackled any craft projects in a donkey's age. My low-key kitchen remodel kept my home - not to mention me - so upended I could not focus on anything else. But with the kitchen done (for now), the air seemed clear, and anyway, I needed to get moving. I keep promising to make things for friends and they are now on Chez Claire back-order. So, last weekend, I decided to start a project, due last Christmas. I was sure I'd screw it up or feel no enthusiasm for the task, but got a happy surprise - projects are still fun! Guess I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed using my hands on something other than computer keyboards.

I decide to whip up a new medicine bag - a present, which requires seed bead decoration of the kind you see on beaded moccasins and such. In the past I did my own seed bead trimming but when I wanted bead rosette,I'd just buy them. But feeling my new-year oats, I decided I'd make my own rosettes this go-round. "After all", I decided, "how hard difficult could that be?"

Infamous last words, I assure you.

Oh dear... The Muse is Dead

So falsely emboldened, I set about teaching myself to sew seed bead rosettes. My first try was a shriveled little mustard blot I abandoned nearly at the onset. My second try was lopsided and let's face it - miserable.

Oh dear...
But I kept at it. I made error after error for my 3rd try, undoing ratty rows and forcing myself to re-sew them. I wold lose focus, look down and see off set rows and the yellow beads where white or turquoise beads were to go. Patiently - an extraordinarily rare attribute of mine - I took apart row after annoying row and re-sew them. Finally, I got some real sense of what I was doing and voila - I had a good rosette!

Long Live the Muse!

The colorful rosette above is not a star, but an Edelweiss flower. It looks a tad off in the photo but actually, when smoothed out & de-bucked, the tiny seed beads lie all squared up and even. When done, I cut the felt around the rosette and sewed it onto a deerskin suede leather medicine bag I made for a friend. The finished bag has tassels of red abalone shell & quartz beads hung at the bottom of pipestem bone. 

Here is the Edelweiss bag and its mate, with a Raven rosette. Both bags have peyote bead tubes on the end of their straps. That was fun re-learning peyote beading. The bags have red abalone tassels at their bottoms and seed bead decorations along their tops. 

Hum.. seems the project Muse is alive and well after all.