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Sunday, January 29, 2017

Bucket List Buster

There was a secret at the reunion, that was well kept. When Carol politely asked why Donna was to buddy up with her, Ideaa and myself at our motel, we flat out lied. "Well, Donna has been sharing a bed with her Mom at Rhonda's. Grace is really tired and needs a good nights sleep so Donna's going to stay with us tonight."

When the unexpected alarm went off at 5AM, Donna, Idea and I lept up and bustled about the room. Carol, sleepily asked, "What? Are you going somewhere? What time is it?"

Again. We lied.

Ideaa shot me a look, and told her mom, "Claire is taking us birding." Yeah. That's the ticket. Everyone urged Carol to get up and dressed, right sharp, and we were off in the dark.

Rainbow Ryders office
I parked us right in front of the Rainbow Ryders office. I turned off the car. I assured everyone - mostly Carol - what I'd dragged everyone out to see was spectacular. But it was too dark to get to where we could see it just yet.

Carol, puzzled, chatted quietly in the back seat with her daughter. Conversation slowed to a stop. We sat in the dark car. Five minutes passed.


Yep! Somehow Carol had been in the dark about her birthday surprise and we all laughed as she happily expressed her delight. It was a busy morning after that. We were checked in at the office, had instructions on ballooning as no one is dead weight on a ballooning ride. Formalities done, we were driven in the early dawn out to the Sonora Desert where several vans from several balloning companies prepared for rides.

Carol wonders what daughter Ideaa's gotten her into 
The balloon crew unloaded the passenger basket and laid it on its side.

The crew starts unfurling the massive balloon
Next the crew stretched the giant deflated balloon out to its full length.

Anyone who wanted to help was encouraged to hold the side lines. Soon the crew had large fans blowing air in to the balloon to keep it open as the burn shot hot flames at the balloon interior.

Donna watching and filming as the balloon starts to swell 
The interior of the balloon could have easily held a couple of hundred people, but we settled for one.
Thumbs up as the balloon filled
The balloon up and overhead, it took lots of men to hold it steady, while we, the stalwart passengers were shown how to climb into the balloon's big wicker basket. Getting in was fun, requiring climbing over the basket rim, there being - for good reasons I'm sure - no doorway. And then the ropes were loosed and off we went!

We soared 5,500 feet high over the beautiful Sonoran Desert. Our pilot was a hoot and we plied him with questions. The most interesting bit he told us was how the basket wicker works way better than fiberglass or any other material. For a while the sport adopted fiberglass which isn't as shock absorbing as wicker, so there were lots of chipped teeth and broken ankles. And better yet, the pilot said if wicker breaks, all he has to do is soak wicker reeds and work them into the basket.

The square black holes on the wicker on the right are footholds for getting into the basket.

I don't know about Carol, Ideaa & Donna but my favorite bit of the ride was, of course, the wildlife. We watched a mama Javelina, her litter of piglets racing at her heels along a hillside. Before landing we were instructed how to stand braced so when the balloon landed we would be safe. It was a cooperative activity. We were ten miles from where the ride began. I wondered how long it would take to land the balloon, and how do you get the thing to land?

Suprise, suprise... something began to happen at the top of the balloon. The view shown is of course looking up from the basket.

The pilot opened a ring at the top of the balloon 

The top hatch open, the hot air began rose from the balloon - our gentle descent began.

Didn't take long before we were landlubbers once again. The flight crew, which had followed us in a van, helped us out of the basket, and set up tables for a champagne brunch. Before we sat to dine on fruits, dips and assorted cold cuts & crossants, our pilot addressed our party. He said he was going to say the Irish Ballonists prayer, which they used to say prior to flights - but it freaked out too many people (HAHAHAHAHAHAA!)

                    Irish Balloonist Prayer 

The winds have welcomed you with softness
the sun has blessed you with it's warm hands
You have flown so high and so well
that God has joined you in laughter
And may he set you gently back again
into the loving arms of Mother Earth

This video below sums up an hours ride and the champagne breakfast at the end of the ride in the just three minutes, 6 seconds. The best bit is the music, which I hummed for like a month before & after the event. Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon? Yeah... me too.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Mini-Family Reunion in Arizona

Top row, left to right: Bill, Hilda, Arna, Grace, Carol, Claire, Charlaine, Dovin, Yvonne
Bottom row, left to right: Joniann, Matt, Donna, Rhonda, Ideaa and Aimee
Mini Reunion time for the Carters in Phoenix. Our family gathered from all over the country.  Cousins Yvonne and her Husband Bill came in from Michigan, not seeming to upset about leaving winter snows behind. Cousin Carol and daughter Ideaa flew in the fartherst, from Queens, New York. Cousins Charlaine and Jonniann drove in from San Diego, California. My Aunt Grace and cousin Donna flew in from Pasadena, where the last mini-reunion was held last July.

On site in Arizona was Rhonda, who moved from Bronx, New York to Arizona just last October. She too seems to have wearied from winter snows.  Others already 'on site' so to speak were my dears,  Uncle Matt and Aunt Arna , my cousins Dovin, Eddie and his S.O. Amy. And too, the Grand Madame, Matt's Mom Hilda lives in Phoenix too. Dovin's children, two boys and a girl are off at college now having adventures they couldn't be with us this weekend.

On the night of my arrival, all who were on hand met up at a restaurant for a bite.

The family starting to gather at Chompies restaurant on Friday night
Left to right: Cousins Dovin and Donna, my Mom's sisters Grace and Arna & uncle Matt
Left to Right: Cousins Charlaine, Rhonda, Yvonnew  Bill and Eddie's SO, contemplative Amy
The men folk, my Uncle Matt (right) & his sons, my cousins Eddie (left) & Dovin (center)
We hadn't tight plans for weekend activities so it was everyone for themselves. Yvonne and Bill took a tour to the the Taliesin West Frank Lloyd Wright home and the Sonora Desert Museum. For myself, on Saturday, I went with my cousin Donna to see Hilda - who has always generously allowed me to call her 'Nana'. Hilda at 104 years old is a sharp cookie. We went to a local diner for a chatty luncheon.
Hilda and Donna have been good phone buddies for ages.
Later we met up with everyone at Matt and Arna's home. Now everyone in the family came armed with loads of family photos to share, copy and reminisce over.

Aunt Grace, Mom and daughter Carol and Idea viewing family history in pictures
A Carter Women Selfie:
from the left: Jonniann, Claire, Charlaine,
Yvonne, Grace, Arna, Idea, Carol, Rhonda and Donna
The family photos shared at the table were delightful, but allow me to share a gem that caught my eye. This is an absolute precious photo of Hilda at approximately four years of age, taken 100 years ago. The photo is tattered and I'm photo shopping out the cracks and tears. Renovation is at, um... let's say 33% repaired. Isn't she darling!

Precious photo of baby Hilda holding a kitten
Another photo new to me was this one of my maternal Grandmother Adele, enjoying a bit of a tipple. I remember that silver bracelet she wears.

Loved looking at Matt & Arna's wedding pictures. I've never visited them without cheerful reminders that I was their flower girl. 
The newly weds pose with mother Hilda
The wedding party leaving for the church, proud father Lomax prepares to give away his daughter. And a knobby kneed, flower girl leads the way.

And now, as a special treat, Matt and little Gigi, lead a family sing-a-long. The first howl was me, not trying to steal Gigi's thunder, but just helping her find that first note. 

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Birdy Bait and Switch

Honestly, one has to wonder if there's ever been a better start to the personal New Year for a casual birder. Yes, I said casual and I'm sticking to it. One's posterior was seated on the center console, a nice hot cup of java on the dashboard, poising itself to tip over and scent the car with the rich aroma of  'cafe de cheap motel'. Redwood forest nectar - known in other regions as 'gadamned, heavy as crap deluge' - making pitty pat noises on the car roof. Off in the distance, the far off distance, a hungry Great Gray Owl, unknowningly under surveillance by five souls, sat on a limb. Honestly, the humans were better off than the poor hungry raptor.
Off in the distance, a hungry Great Gray Owl
The thing is, I was spending Christmas with a buddy in Monterey County, with thoughts of the Common Pochard , i.e., rare duck, haunting my birder's noggin. Finally, when the holidays were nearly over and the duck seemed to be staying put, an early 'adieu' was bid, and my tattered old Honda began the trek north on Highway 101. The duck search was afoot! When the hours of northward driving concluded late on December 31st, this was the view where the duck was said to be visible.
View of Oxbow from opposite shoulder on Hwy 101
Did you not the blue splotch on the left of the photo? It's the bigger bit of the oxbow curve that continues beyond the right side of the pic. Eve with ten power binoculars you could just make out the blue of the oxbow river curve and tiny black dots one knew to be ducks. And me bereft of my missing - possibly stolen - spotting scope. Realizing futility was knocking, a motel room was procured, a Chinese Buffet eaten and it was off to bed.

Next morning, about five minutes in on the 30 minute drive back to the duck site, I turned around and headed south. It was drizzly & gray when even with the best weather and lighting seeing the duck was probably not going to happen. Why not go for the owl species I turned my nose up last winter?

cutout from distant shot
Thanks to eBird and GPS, my Honda was soon parked on the lonely back country road. Two lady birders, from Winters were there, and spying me, they motioned 'hurry up, come on over' as they had
the bird. They'd spotted it the previous evening and it hadn't moved far. The skies opened up and that's how my butt found it's way onto the console for some slightly comfortable Owl viewing. A lovely couple of birders joined and eagerly stood in the rain watching the anxious owl.

The bird was classic - the round Great Gray Owl face with it's white bow tie (neck feathers) and long tail. It frequently scanned the grass around it, and a time or two took off, then returned to its perch. Then the sun came out, in more ways than one.

The Great Gray flew, landing where it was tough making out the bird from the Spanish moss it sat in. Keep in mind this photo was lightened via photoshoping.

Let's play 'can you see the bird, dead center in this shot?'
One of the ladies from Winters said wistfully, 'I wish it would land in this tree, and she pointed to the tree closest to us'. Yeah, right. And the bird flew to a closer tree, up in the dark.

Here... birdy, birdy, birdy...
Hey, it's almost in the tree... we all thought. Then suddenly, it WAS.  SOMEONE's New Year's dream had come true - for ALL of us.

Owl face

and notably, its best side.
The photos above are full photos and frankly - I was so excited I hadn't even noticed my lens wasn't on it's highest setting. DUH. 

Now talk about excited birders, we were birder drunk on a great bird that was obviously showing off its stuff. Ok, maybe at best it totally ignored the gawking humans but that's just as exciting for us. I got maybe five minutes of the prize bird on video, when it swooped down for a stab at a rodent which it presumably missed. I hope it got breakfast sometime in the morning. As god is my witness, I wanted to go to a pet store, get some mice and hold an owl buffet. Not even sure if that would be legal without permits. Ages ago I got to feed a white mouse to wild Spotted Owl - one of my top birding memories. 
Now we're talkin'!
The last photo just above is the entire photo taken at 400mm showing how close that fluffy, massive, golden-eyed beauty was. *heavy, happy sigh*
Thumbs up
And that my friends is how you get 'baited' with a lifer duck, and 'switched' to a lifer owl.

Here is a victory shot I took of my fellow happy birders.

And below is nearly a minute of Great Gray Game.

UPDATE: Thanks to the splitting of the Western Scrub Jay into two species, California Scrub Jay and Woodhouse's Scrub Jay, turns out this beautiful Great Grey Owl is my 650th bird species for the ABA area. Wooo HOOOOT!