Three-eagle day

Let’s just get this out of the way up front: the dish I made last week that I hoped to feature in a triumphant return to food blogging after several weeks of inactivity turned out to be okay, but not blog-worthy. I am sorry. However, I can’t resist making a quick post about our day today.

For a bit of a back story, in a stroke of genius I gave Mark binoculars for Christmas. Ostensibly they are for our trip to Tanzania (it’s an expensive trip so I’ve pledged to buy nothing but items we need for it until it happens, other than, of course, food), but I had another motive as well, which was to encourage him to start going to parks with me again. He got bored of going with me because I’m always stopping to take pictures of things he usually can’t even see. My plan worked; if anything too well. Now I’M the one impatiently waiting for HIM to catch up when we go to parks! Mark loves his binoculars so much he took this picture of himself to illustrate how he programs now:

Today after raccooning, I stopped by Mark’s office (Mark works from home, so stopping by his office meant walking down the hall of our house), where I found him looking suspiciously like he was working, on a Sunday. This exchange happened:

RENAE: Are you working?
MARK: Yes, but I’m not too happy about it.
RENAE: Do you have time to go out for a little while? Do you want to go binocularing?
MARK: [thinks for a moment, then...] Yes, yes I do. Let me find my shoes.

Then we had to decide where to go. We narrowed it down to Mason Neck State Park and/or National Wildlife Refuge (they are adjacent to each other), or Occoquan Bay NWR. I said that at Occoquan we’d probably see a larger variety of birds and if we were lucky perhaps turkeys or a fox, but that at Mason Neck we stood a fair chance of seeing an eagle. Although the odds were better of seeing a large number of more varied animals at Occoquan, seeing an eagle kind of trumps everything else. Nonetheless, Occoquan is closer so we ended up going there. I spied some turkeys soon after our arrival:

Walking along I was explaining to Mark that Occoquan Bay NWR is home to one or two nesting pairs of bald eagles but that I’d only ever seen a single eagle in all my many trips there. Mark said, “I want to see an eagle today.” I said, “well, it’s possible but I really don’t want you to get your hopes up because you’re probably not going to.” To which he responded, “oh, I’m getting my hopes up!”

If that conversation sounds familiar, it’s because we had the EXACT same exchange back in April: Mark said he wanted to see an eagle at Mason Neck and I said, “don’t get your hopes up,” and Mark replied, “my hopes are up,” and damn if we didn’t see an eagle two minutes later.

Guess what happened two minutes – I’m not exaggerating! – after Mark said he was getting his hopes up about seeing an eagle today? He scanned around with his binoculars and announced, “Yep, I see an eagle.” Now, like a lot of people, Mark has “see an eagle-itis”. I don’t know why it is, but there is some either human or American tendency to think that everything you see in the sky is an eagle. The raptor rehabber I work with has numerous stories of calls he’s gotten about eagles that have turned out to be anything from red shouldered hawks (which are much, much smaller than eagles and look nothing like them) to PIGEONS. He receives dozens of calls about injured eagles annually and I think in his many years of rehab only one has actually been an eagle. People think they see eagles ALL THE TIME when they do not. Mark, too, has many times claimed to be looking at an eagle when what he was really seeing was something else, so naturally I didn’t believe him…I mean, I’d JUST told him he probably wasn’t going to. Except I DID then see something white-headed in the direction he was pointing his binoculars. I aimed my telephoto lens at it AND DAMN IF IT WASN’T A BALD EAGLE.

HOW DOES HE DO IT???

Now, none of the pictures in this post are my best; in fact, they’re pretty crappy, but I’m sharing them anyway because, well, I’m obsessed with raptors. The eagle was pretty far away from me and like an idiot I’d left my tripod at home so I had to handhold my big lens, which can make it difficult to get sharp pictures. But here is the eagle flying from one tree to another nearby tree:

And where he landed:

After gawking at him for quite some time, we eventually continued on our way through the refuge, heading over towards the bay. As soon as we got to the water, I looked out to a small island and saw a dark shape at the top of a tree. A dark shape with a white head. Looking through my lens again I announced, “uhhhhhhhhh….eagle!”

So then we spent many more minutes admiring and photographing THAT eagle. Eventually we decided to move on, when Mark looked back for some reason or another. NOW GUESS WHAT:

I’m assuming this is a mated pair, although since they are in the middle of a narrow bay between two wildlife refuges, I don’t know in which one they reside.

Maybe this makes me strange, but in my opinion, seeing three eagles is the definition of “great day”! I think I’m going to coin an alternative to the phrase “red-letter day”: “three-eagle day”! Not only that, I got to share my three-eagle day with Mark. And not only that, but the setting sun threw beautiful colors over the bay at the same time (the island in this picture is the one the two eagles were on):

It was quite dark by the time we managed to make it out of the refuge. This is the last of the setting sun over Marumsco Creek:

In quick non-food, non-wildlife news, I took Heidi to her new home yesterday morning and although she was nervous and scared, she was totally happy to have her new companion person pet her – she even ate treats out of her hand! – and I feel really good that I made the right decision. I do miss her and feel bad that she probably feels like I abandoned her, but I saw signs yesterday that it’ll actually take her less time to adapt to her new home than I worried it might. I truly think she will be much happier there. Gomez and Torticia have been in extra high spirits since yesterday so I suppose they are happier too.

I shall be spending the upcoming days hoping a food post comes to me…if only because I have a backlog of raptor pictures to foist upon you!

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Cat Update

I exist!

I have far more non-food-related news going on in my life right now than new recipes, so I return with a non-recipe post…but only because I am actually planning a recipe post later this week. Several people have asked about the cat situation, particularly since last time I alluded to the fact we had four cats. Which, for a couple of months, we did. So for you cat lovers, here’s a cat-only update. For those of you uninterested in cats, come back soon for some food.

So, back when I was furloughed in October, I was in the sunroom when Gomez and Torticia suddenly sounded an alert: someone was at the back door! Mezzie and Tish race to the door whenever any other living thing shows up outside the sliding glass door: bird, squirrel, raccoon, skunk, fox…you name it. But that day the cause of their excitement was another cat. And not just any cat, this gorgeous fluffy black cat, and she was pressing herself against the door as if she desperately wanted in, although the weather was quite nice out at the time. Gently kicking Mez and Tish out of the way, I opened the door, only to have the kitty run off a few yards. However, to my surprise, when I called to her she came running up to me and let me pet her. In fact, she let me pick her up. I fell for her immediately. I INSTANTLY loved this cat. She rubbed noses with me! I went back inside to get her some food and to call Mark to come look at her. She scarfed down a large can of food like she hadn’t eaten for days and by the time she was done Mark was in love with her too.

It took me several weeks to bring Heidi in when she was living in our yard, but I took this cat up to the animal hospital to be scanned for a microchip within a couple of hours. For one thing, she was a black cat and it was nearing Halloween. For another thing, I loved her and I was secretly hoping no one claimed her. She was negative for a chip and I SWEAR I made a good faith attempt to find her owners, checking in with the animal shelter and Craigslist, etc., but when no one claimed her in a week or so, Mark and I called her a Halloween miracle from the Great Pumpkin and we christened her Wednesday to fit in with Gomez and Torticia (conveniently, I also found her on a Wednesday).

I took Wednesday to our vet and told him we’d adopted a fourth cat. I was convinced he was going to think I was some crazy cat thief because Torticia is a tortie and Gomez is all-black, and the first cat I found in my yard was another tortie, and now the second cat I’d found in the yard was all-black. I mean, what at the chances that the TWO cats that show up in my yard within a few months of each other would be another tortie and another all-black cat?? Both the new cats were like tiny versions of Mezzie and Tortellini! I thought he’d think I was starting a bizarre collection. He insisted he just thought I was a good person to care about strays so much, gave her some shots, and collected some blood to run the standard new-cat tests.

Two days later I sprang to answer his call because Wednesday was going crazy being locked up in a room by herself and I was desperate to get the all-clear to let her mingle with other cats and have full run of the house. Only it wasn’t to be: the test results were positive for feline leukemia. I cried my eyes out when I got off the phone with him, because feline leukemia is pretty much an early death sentence. Unlike feline HIV patients who can often live many years with no symptoms of their disease, most leukemia patients die within 3-5 years. And since it’s contagious to other cats, Wednesday would have to go to a home where she could be the only cat. It’s REALLY hard to find someone who is willing to adopt such a cat. Honestly I don’t know that I would choose to do so. You can’t have any other cats (unless they too are FLV+), you have to live knowing they will very likely have a short life, and you’re probably looking at at lot of vet bills near the end of their life. I thought immediately of my friend Melissa, though, who lost her cat KK the prior year (KK was an orange tabby, like my cat Tigger that those of you who have been reading for years may remember, and like Tigger, KK was from Ocean City, MD: Melissa and I adopted them about the same time when we were in college together) and through my tears sent her an emotional email. I figured she’d probably be mad at me for asking her such a ridiculous question (“Hey, I know you are busy raising three young kids and working but how would you like to adopt a cat that’s going to get sick and die in a few years????”), so when she didn’t respond right away, I totally understood and began the arduous task of reaching out to EVERY cat charity I could find and asking for help. Very few did anything to help me, although I did finally find one place near Charlottesville that has a FLV room and would accept Wednesday if I agreed to sponsor her – essentially donate money monthly towards her vet bills and upkeep – which I kept on reserve as a last resort as I preferred to find her an actual home.

But then it turned out Melissa wasn’t purposely avoiding me because she didn’t want to have to say no to me – she just hadn’t checked her email in a few days. AND she thought she may be feeling called to agree to it! After a lot of research on Melissa’s part and a family vote, Melissa’s family agreed to adopt Wednesday. I was so, so, so, so happy! Because not only was Wednesday going to a great home with someone I trust implicitly, I’d be able to see her whenever I wanted! Plus, I was tired of going to Melissa’s house and not getting to see KK or any other cats. Wednesday has been at Melissa’s for over a month and is adjusting well to her three kids. This story has a happy ending!!

Wednesday is super difficult to take pictures of because she’s so dark and fast: if you level a camera at her, she’s immediately in your face, wanting attention. These are the crappy pictures I took for Melissa while she was still deciding; they do nothing to express the beauty of Wednesday, who is very tiny but very silky, very black, very, very pretty, and super personable.

This picture is absurd, but I wanted to capture her gorgeous tail.

I love this cat. And I love Melissa and her family for adopting her!

Now, another story, which is a little less dramatic, but like the first starts out sad then gets happy: Heidi.

Little Heidi. I told you how I came to adopt her this summer in this post, but unfortunately, during the whole Wednesday debacle it was becoming obvious it just wasn’t going to work out with her. I love Heidi: she’s very sweet and loyal and eager to show me how grateful she is I took her in. Seriously, I can read it in her eyes. The problem is Torticia has HATED Heidi since the day I let Heidi out of quarantine following HER blood test results (which were, thankfully, all negative). Mezzie, on the other hand, was super friendly with Heidi and tried to befriend her. Heidi, however, went on the defensive following Torticia’s rancor and struck out indiscriminately at both cats. After a few months, I don’t know if Mezzie got tired of his friendly overtures being rebuffed or if Torticia finally convinced him to join the dark side, but eventually Mezzie started hassling Heidi as well. With the two of them ganged up on the poor girl, I realized I couldn’t make the relationship work, so I turned to the SPCA, from whom I adopted Mez and Tish. SPCA NOVA is awesome to work with and they responded immediately with help. They posted Heidi on their website and promised to get Heidi into a safe foster home as soon as one was available.

Imagine my surprise when a week later no foster homes had opened up, but two different people wanted to adopt her! I liked both applicants tremendously but of course only one could adopt her. This Saturday morning Heidi will be moving to her new home with a very nice woman who was looking for a quiet, gentle kitty to love after her ex-husband took the cat he entered the relationship with. I feel really good about this. I know Heidi will be much happier in her new home and I think Heidi will be an excellent companion for her.

My sweet girl, I’m sorry I couldn’t give you the home you deserve, but I hope you know I’m giving you up so you can have a better life!

AND NOW LOOK AT THESE BULLIES!

Seriously, though, when they aren’t giving me headaches by hassling Heidi, Gomez and Torticia remain the most absolutely wonderful cats ever. And frankly, I’m looking forward to being back down to two cats. Four was too many, especially since there were three distinct “groups” to whom I had to pay separate attention. When I work with the raccoons and the raptors, I have to divide my time up between many animals, and I like that because I am exposed to so many different needs and personalities and I learn a lot. But at home, I really just want two awesome best feline friends with whom I have the strongest relationship possible. And a lot of the time I’m not home. So when I get home, I just want to see their two smiling little faces greeting me and not feel stressed out that I need to spend quality time with half the cat population of Virginia.

Yeah, they LOOK lazy, but they are MEANIE PANTS.

LET’S ALL HOPE NO MORE STRAY CATS TAKE UP RESIDENCE IN MY YARD.

Finally, in non-cat-related news, big excitement on the horizon!! Mark and I are going on safari in Tanzania for our 10th wedding anniversary in October! And Smucky and his girlfriend are going with us! It’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever done and I am beside myself! I am mentioning it here because, well, it’s pretty much the only thing I think of these days, but also because I’m soliciting advice. Our tour organizer knows we are vegan and has assured me it won’t be a problem, and I’ve actually seen the words “vegan-friendly” on the websites of some of the camps and lodges we’ll be staying in (can you imagine that?! The times we live in!), so I’m not super worried about starving, but I am a little worried about being hungry from time to time. We’ll be on some long drives and I get really, really bad headaches – and turn into a total monster – if I don’t eat when I’m hungry. Usually when I travel long distances, I load up on energy bars for the journey, and usually my destination is a city or at least someplace I can find a bag of chips or something if I’m really desperate. But what do I do when I’m in the Serengeti and there’s no vegan snacks around for miles? Because we will be taking tiny planes from camp to camp in Africa, there is a 12 kg luggage weight limit, most of which I’ll be devoting to camera equipment, and furthermore, we have to use soft-sided luggage like duffle bags. Basically I’m planning to take a very small carry-on bag for my clothes and toiletries – just enough clothes for 3 days or so (laundry service is provided in the camps). I won’t have space for a 2-week supply of energy bars, and besides which, it’ll be hot: a lot of them get melty and gross in the heat. Are there any of you out there who, even if you haven’t been on safari, are maybe avid backpackers and have suggestions for highly portable, filling snacks, or other not-starving-while-traveling tips? So far all I can think of is nuts, but I’m not even sure how much room I’ll have for those…and how I’ll keep Mark from eating all of them on the first day. (That boy loves nuts!)

And now I’m off to make dinner…a dinner that I hope to be able to post as a recipe here.

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Spicy Black-eyed Pea Soup

RENAE IS UPDATING HER BLOG. That’s right, folks! I’m here with an actual recipe and everything! I thought my life would be getting less hectic around this time, but I can’t even remember a day I was able to sleep in past 8 a.m.. Although half of our raccoons have been released (we actually have more than usual remaining for this late in the year), instead of using the extra time gained during my weekend for leisure, I’ve been training to work with raptors. In addition, it feels like I have 400 cats in the house right now (it’s really four). And I attended a weekend-long wildlife conference a couple of weeks ago. And I’ve been testing for Kittee’s upcoming Ethiopian cookbook. I’ve therefore actually been cooking a lot this month, but not many recipes I can share. My food photography skills, never very impressive, have taken a nosedive of late so I don’t even have any decent pictures of my delicious output, although I can assure you YOU WILL WANT THIS COOKBOOK. I was worried I wouldn’t have the time to commit to testing, but I’ve been making Kittee’s Ethiopian recipes for years and I just couldn’t resist the temptation to be a small part of this project because I knew it was going to be amazing. And it is!

I took a break from Ethiopian last night (although I had leftovers for lunch earlier!), and I did something I haven’t done in an embarrassingly long time: I baked bread!! I used this no-time bread recipe from The Kitchn. As a bread snob, I can’t say it’s the best bread I’ve ever baked, and I’m so bread-baker-snobby I hate bread recipes that are by volume instead of weight, but it’s better than no bread and better than commercial bread for sure. Then I needed to come up with something to serve with it. I’ve been stuffing my face with a ton of injera lately so when not eating Ethiopian, I’ve been making lighter meals, so soup seemed about right. I had some fresh black-eyed peas from the farmers market in the freezer and a large horde of jalapenos ready for the test recipes, so I whipped up this smoky, spicy black-eyed pea soup.

Spicy Black-eyed Pea Soup

1 medium onion, diced
1 small jalapeno, sliced
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
1 medium green bell pepper, chopped
4-6 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp Old Bay
1/2 tsp smoked salt (or to taste, depending on how salty your broth is)
14-16 oz can diced tomatoes
1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen black-eyed peas
8 cups veggie broth
2 bay leaves
1 tsp apple cider vinegar

Put some oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat, then add the onion, jalapeno, celery, carrot, bell pepper, and garlic, and saute for several minutes until vegetables are soft. Add the paprika, Old Bay, and salt and cook another minute or two, then add the tomatoes, using them to deglaze the pot if necessary, and cook another minute or so. Add the black-eyed peas, veggie broth, bay leaves, and vinegar, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer over medium heat until the peas are soft, about an hour to an hour and a half. Remove the bay leaves before serving.

Serve with crusty bread and lots of Tabasco!

I wish that since it’s been so long since I last posted that I had scads of pictures to share of all the exciting things I’ve been doing, but alas, although I’ve been doing some exciting things, photos are scarce. I never did share some of the pictures I took in Harpers Ferry, WV when I was furloughed, though, so I’ll take the opportunity to do so, as it’s a very lovely place and I had a really nice day. A lot of the acreage there is a national park, which was of course closed (it seems like EVERYTHING I wanted to do while furloughed was a national park or wildlife refuge…soooo annoying), but I don’t think I’ve actually gone to the park before as there is a lot to do otherwise. Actually, I’m not sure I wasn’t on park grounds at times, but there was no one to stop me, so IN YOUR FACE, CONGRESS.

We usually park near the train station. I love trains (and train travel), and if you are in the town for any length of time, you’ll probably see one. A freight train chugged on through about two minutes after I parked. Amtrak stops at this station as well. Here’s an infrared shot of the station:

Across some disused tracks you can see the quaint, historical town:

Nearby is an old boat landing; there’s a sign here telling the story of a daring Civil War-era escape.

One of the focal points of the town is the old church, which is up many, many 18th-century (read: small, uneven, and treacherous!) stone stairs.

If that church isn’t old enough for you, here are the remains of an even older one:

Keep going behind the church and you come to Jefferson Rock, named for yes, THE Thomas Jefferson, who took in the view from the rock while traveling through the area and stated “this scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”

The view is pretty awesome.

Continuing along you come to a graveyard.

All in all, a very lovely way to spend a day. The government reopened the very next day and I found myself quite suddenly back at work.

I’ve alluded periodically to the fact that in addition to raccoons, I’ve been starting to work with raptors. I won’t be able to share as many photos from that because we aren’t really allowed to take pictures of our rehab birds, but I’ll try to snag some pics of the education birds when I can. Working with raptors is WAY different than raccoons: they don’t take to being cuddled and they eat much grosser food. But I really enjoy it. I’ve always been in awe of these birds of prey (when I say raptors, I mean birds, not dinosaurs!) and having the opportunity to get so close to them and even handle them is amazing. I showed some friends and family some pictures of me holding some of the birds and most everyone commented, “you look really HAPPY!” Of course I was happy, I WAS HOLDING AN OWL! THIS owl:

Another of our ed birds, this is a long-eared owl, which is smaller than the barred owl above, but much larger than a screech owl.

One of the first things you learn about birds of prey is that red-shouldered hawks have a reputation for their attitude, which is just that: they have an attitude. Every single person that takes a red shoulder out of its cage imitates it by saying, “I’m a red shoulder!” in an assertive voice…usually while the red shoulder is asserting its red-shoulderness. This education bird was notable for not acting like a red shoulder – instead he sat quietly and enjoyed the crisp autumn air.

Here I am holding a broadwing hawk, which I know less about because we have fewer than we do red shoulders and red tails; in fact, I think this is the only broadwing we have at the moment. It took him a little while to settle down.

I got a question about the new cat, Heidi, a couple of weeks ago – I’ll have a cat update next time…there’s much to tell, good and bad. A teaser: Heidi is no longer the “new” cat!

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