Things I have seen swimming in the Potomac River, as viewed from Riverbend Park

Horned Grebe (this guy was totally charming: he’d swim under water for several minutes, then pop up somewhere unexpected, swim above water for a few seconds, then go back below again):

Common Merganser:

Double-crested cormorant:

Muskrat!

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EAGLETS!

On Conn Island, from the Maryland side of Great Falls. The gray blobs sticking out of the nest are babies.

From the nest at Occoquan Bay NWR:

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Nesting

April is nesting time for many species. Most animals are extremely wary of others getting near their eggs or young, but I met a Canadian snow goose the other week at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens that let me walk right up to her nest.

After carefully arranging and checking the eggs, she settled down and preened, although I decided she was doing goose yoga.

Who else has been tending to their eggs?! The bald eagles, of course! This picture is from a couple of weeks ago; I’ve heard the eaglets have now hatched. I can’t wait until they start flying!

And yes, although they don’t come in eggs, it’s baby raccoon time as well! Taken two weeks ago, this is one of Emmy’s babies. It was 5 days old in this photo. Emmy is a wild raccoon that was rehabbed by Dogue Hollow their first year, so she’s ten years old. She’s also a great mother and has raised orphan babies for us in the past. In fact, when a neighboring mother raccoon left her den for too long last week, Emmy couldn’t stand the babies’ crying and trotted over and “rescued” one before the other mother returned!

Speaking of Dogue Hollow, a very kind reader alerted me a while ago of Amazon’s new “AmazonSmile” program. All you do is pick your favorite charity, then start shopping at smile.amazon.com instead of www.amazon.com and Amazon will donate 0.5% of the purchase price of many of their items (nothing I have bought in the last few months has not been included) to that charity. I’m not going to spam you and beg for money (although we desperately need some!), but this is really a free and effortless way to raise a little money for your favorite charity, and if your favorite charity happens to be Dogue Hollow, so much the better! Make a raccoon happy today!

(If you don’t want to set anything up now, I have created a Helping wildlife page under my “About the author” page that has information about donating to both Dogue Hollow and the Raptor Conservancy of Virginia.)

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Tahini-Miso Soba Salad

Spring is here, spring is here; call it from the mountain tops, SPRING IS HERE. And an auspicious first day of spring it is: although I was met with intense fog when I awoke early this morning, the sun was trying to burn a hole through it on my drive to work and it was absolutely gorgeous. The temperature was in the 50s during my afternoon commute (convertible weather!), and considering we got 6″ of snow on Monday, I couldn’t be happier about that. I AM SO FLIPPING TIRED OF SHOVELING SNOW. I am tired of LOOKING at snow. I don’t know how you Canadians out there deal with this all winter every winter. Of course, the weather forecasters are saying there is a chance of yet more snow next week, but I refuse to think about that on this beautiful day.

Mark saw me taking pictures of my dinner last night and excitedly asked, “are you going to do a blog post? It’s been two years!” To which I responded, “more like two months, but yes, if this meal is blog-worthy I’ll do a post.” Mark stuck a fork in his bowl and loudly announced, “YES! YES! DO A POST! THIS IS DELICIOUS!” I have taken photos periodically of other meals over the long weeks since last I posted, but none of them seemed good enough to write up, and of course the longer I wait, the higher my standards are for a comeback. Fortunately Mark assures me this recipe qualifies (I have a feeling he’ll be requesting it in the future) and I think it has an air of spring about it so it seems appropriate for today.

I’ve had a craving for a tahini-based sauce lately and poking about the internet for ideas, I found inspiration in Isa’s Roasty Soba Bowl and this Honey Sriracha Glazed Tofu.

Tahini-Miso Soba Salad

3-4 bundles buckwheat soba, cooked according to package instructions and rinsed in cold water
1/2 lb extra firm tofu
1 head broccoli, cut into florets and lightly steamed for a minute or two
1 small or baby cucumber, thinly sliced on the diagonal
1 avocado, chopped
3 scallions, sliced
sesame seeds

Sriracha Marinade
2 Tbsp sriracha
1 Tbsp agave nectar
1 Tbsp soy sauce
2 tsp rice vinegar
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
splash of toasted sesame oil

Tahini-Miso Sauce
1/4 cup tahini
1/4 cup white miso
3 Tbsp rice vinegar
3 Tbsp nutritional yeast
1 Tbsp soy sauce
3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
couple splashes toasted sesame oil
water as needed to thin

Whisk together the sriracha marinade ingredients. Slice the tofu into 1/2″ thick slices. Slather with half of the marinade. Let marinate for a while if you have time, although as I doubt much of the marinade will penetrate the tofu, this step is optional. Bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes, then turn over and bake for another 15 minutes, coating with some more of the marinade. You can let it return to room temperature after baking if you have time.

Place the miso-tahini sauce ingredients into a blender or food processor and process until smooth, adding water as necessary to thin.

Prep the soba, broccoli, cucumber, and avocado as described above. Place 1/3 to 1/4 of the soba into each bowl or plate, then pour in enough of the tahini sauce to lightly coat the noodles, mixing with your hands or chopsticks. Top each bowl with some of the broccoli, cucumber, and avocado. Chop the baked tofu into cubes then sprinkle onto each bowl. Drizzle any remaining tahini sauce on top, then if you like, drizzle any remaining sriracha marinade (or just decoratively squirt on some additional sriracha), then top everything off with scattered sliced scallions and sesame seeds.

So there’s the food. What’s going other than food? Well, Mark bought me a new car! New-to-me anyway. I was/am very attached to my old car, a blue 1995 Miata I fully planned (plan?) to run into the ground. It has 152k miles and I was hoping for another 150k more. When it started pulling to the right and my mechanics weren’t able to fix it with an alignment, I was slightly concerned but trusted they would figure it out. Then the shop manager lent me his personal Miata while he tried to diagnose Cookie Monster (my car’s name, owing to its Cookie Monster color and pop-up googly eyes), and I developed a car crush on it. It’s one of the very few turbo Miatas ever made and it has all the available racing upgrades. I’m not a car enthusiast like my father or brother, but I inherited enough of the car-loving genes that I got addicted to the power and was reluctant to relinquish it in exchange for my still-right-leaning, suddenly-very-slow-seeming Cookie Monster. Then the manager offered to sell it to me and I realized I’d been tricked! He lent it to me knowing full well I’d want to buy it. It was a Friday night and I told him there was absolutely no way I was buying a new car when we already own a fleet of cars AND I need to buy a lot of expensive things for going to Africa. As soon as I returned home that Friday and told Mark it was for sale he immediately said, “I’ll buy it for you.” And that was all the convincing I needed. First thing Monday morning I called him to say we’d be by that night to take it. 🙂



It’s awesome! It gets terrible gas mileage and requires premium fuel! It’s also a huge amount of fun. It needs a name! I need a take a better picture of it than this one from the night we bought it, but unfortunately it’s been buried in snow for half the time we’ve had it. (Also pictured is Mark’s Jeep, which I muddied up nicely getting to the raccoons.)

Other than that, my life has been raptor-a-rama. Last weekend I had my first raptor escapee: a tiny screech owl flew out of his cage before I could grab him to move him for cage cleaning. Luckily we were inside. Unluckily, screechies are by far the smallest bird we rehab and they can hide ANYWHERE. I’d far rather a red tailed hawk or even a red shoulder had escaped; they’d have been much easier to find. I thought he was under some cages but didn’t have a flashlight and couldn’t see anything at all under there, so I swept underneath with a broom handle and out he hopped, a huge dust ball all over his face. Annoyed as I was with him, I couldn’t help but laugh at how surprised and silly he looked standing there. I quickly netted him and stashed him in an empty cage so I could clean his home. Kent, who runs the organization, told me later that was the same screechie that broke through the netting in another cage earlier in the week and escaped…Kent came into the bird room in the morning and found things overturned, which is how he knew a bird was out. Naughty owl!

For the sake of visualization (although my escapee was red screechie), here is a totally different screech owl I photographed last year:


I made another mistake the same day. While making my feeding rounds, I found a red tail lying on its back with its feet all curled up, looking very dead. “This bird is dead,” I announced to a senior volunteer, who happened to be there training a new volunteer. They peered into the cage and said, “yes, he sure looks dead,” and we all felt sad. I left him there for the time being to finish feeding the other birds, all of whom were EXTREMELY alive (it was a very rowdy raptor day). When Kent came in, I told him about the dead red tail so he opened the cage to retrieve the body AND IT JUMPED UP AND FLAPPED INDIGNANTLY AT HIM. Which was bad because Kent wasn’t wearing protective gloves and red tails are very large and strong and can easily maim you. Of course, I felt incredibly stupid, but that hawk really was sleeping in a most bizarre position. So, kids, apparently hawks play dead. Who knew? (Incidentally, Nick Cave fans, this paragraph reminds me of “…where that mad old buzzard, the reverend, shrieked and flapped about life after you’re dead…”. No?)

I’ve been going to the wildlife refuge every weekend for the eagle show. That’s right, we have at least one pair of nesting bald eagles and it’s been very easy to spot them and several other eagles, soaring about or just sitting around looking mighty and majestic.

Eagle in nest!!

(If you live in the area and want to visit for yourself, please note that because the eagle nest is RIGHT next to the trail, they’ve closed off a small but important length of the trail, making it impossible to do a loop through the center of the refuge (where the nest is). This map shows the closure, although you can actually get closer to the nest heading west on Charlie Road than the map implies. You will, however, have to double back along the bay to return to the parking lot. The nest is visible if you approach from the east, but you will need binoculars or a super-telephoto camera lens to see an eagle in the nest – and even with binoculars or a lens, the nest is deep and you may not see anyone in it.)

More on the eagles in a bit, but first, what else have I seen? Well, can anyone out there help me identify this bird?


My friend pointed it out to me the other day, saying, “that bird looks rusty,” which was a curious thing for him to say because just a couple of days earlier I’d been reading about the rusty blackbird “blitz” going on right now: Fish & Wildlife are asking for the public’s help in counting these threatened, rare birds, and Mark and I had been planning to look for them. So I snapped a picture in case it was a rusty blackbird, but in the photo it looks more iridescent than rusty to me, although apparently in the spring they are more black than rusty. Anyone out there know what this bird is? Rusty blackbirds are confirmed to have been seen in the refuge, so it’s not impossible that’s what this is. I’d like to report it if it is.

It amazes me every year how entirely different the refuge looks in the winter and the summer. It’s so lush and verdant in the summer, although you can see much, much more in the winter. I’ve been grateful for somewhat warm weekends despite all the snow we’ve gotten this winter.






We took my brother to see eagles the other weekend and at first it wasn’t looking good on the eagle front – it was the first time we encountered the trail closure (which they don’t bother to mention at any of the trailheads for some unknown reason). So I was glad when he spotted a beaver so at least he got to see SOMETHING interesting. (A few minutes after this we ran across an entirely intact beaver skeleton on the trail near the bay, which was…odd.)


I see great blue herons every time I go anywhere. I’ve actually seen them fly over my head while driving near my house.


Osprey and eagles are the big raptor attractions at the refuge, but it has its share of hawks and owls (though I haven’t YET seen an owl!).


It’s also somewhat known for the wild turkeys, which for the longest time were so elusive I couldn’t get a picture, but I’ve been lucky this year.


AND as of last weekend, the ospreys are back!! Ospreys are what this refuge is most well-known for (if you can call it well-known; it actually seems to be a huge secret, which is fine with me).


But if you’ve been reading for a while, you know it’s the bald eagles that both Mark and I love so much. We return week after week to admire them. I took this one on President’s Day, which was right before they closed the trail off for the nest, but the eagle couple must have picked the location out already because I walked right under the nest and consequently was much, much closer than I’d ever been to a wild bald eagle in my life: like 10 feet. It was exhilarating.

My brother finally did get to see his eagle: despite the trail closure we were able to get very close to this eagle sitting in a tree near the nest, close to the trail barricade.




My friend and I saw this eagle looking out over they bay near the end of the day last weekend:

Mark missed the first half of my President’s Day adventure (though he called me and asked me to come get him so he could join me later), so when we came across this eagle staring out at the bay from a tree maybe 50 feet from us a couple of weeks later, he was flabbergasted. I was delighted by his position on the edge of the tree and not behind a bunch of branches! These are my favorite pictures.






Whew! Now you are all caught up with me: new car, lots of eagles. Coming soon to an ieatfood post near you: BABY RACCOONS!!! No, we don’t have any yet, but we are currently prepping for our first intakes, which we expect in a few short weeks. I die every April when the first infants appear. I get so used to seeing the large juvies and adults that over-winter with us that I forget how very tiny and FLIPPING ADORABLE babies are. I’m excited, but life is about to get even more hectic once they start arriving. But spring also brings the farmers market, which I am DESPERATE for, so hopefully I’ll have more interesting meals to blog about. In addition to baby animals.

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Broccoli “Cheese” Soup

I had some limp broccoli in the refrigerator so I decided to make soup out of it last night. Nice for a cold night, perhaps, but not too amazing, right? I didn’t think so until Mark started going absolutely nuts over it. We were watching TV together while eating and I was flattered when he told me not once but twice that the soup was excellent. But then he didn’t stop! He just kept raving about it. “I’m not even paying attention to the show, I’m too into this soup!” he proclaimed, which was surprising considering we were watching a program he ordinarily finds hilarious. Even after we’d finished dinner, he was still going on about it: “I want to eat that soup until I throw up!” At that point I had to tell him the compliments were heading into gross territory and starting to sound less complimentary. But considering how much Mark hates throwing up the fact that he’d be willing to risk it in order to eat more of the soup was saying something, I suppose. Additionally, he’s also usually very squeamish about cleaning up pots from “creamy” things, but he cheerfully washed the soup pot and said even that chore was worth the soup. The last thing he said to me before I went to sleep was, “I’M GOING TO THE KITCHEN FOR MORE OF THAT SOUP.”

He insisted I do a post on it. I was reluctant to do so because I’ve already done a very similar post, but that post is ancient anyway, so here’s exactly what I did last night that produced the soup Mark would puke for.

Broccoli “Cheese” Soup

1 large onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
2 cups or so chopped potatoes
2 small or medium or 1 large head of broccoli, cut into florets (and stalks peeled and chopped)
6 cups of vegetable broth (I used Better Than Bouillon’s “No Chicken” flavor)
1/3 cup vegan gouda or other cheese from Artisan Vegan Cheese*
1/3 cup nutritional yeast
juice of 1/2 lemon
salt or seasoning salt, to taste

* I am sorry that I keep including cheeses from this book in my recent recipes. I’ve been avoiding posting anything I made using recipes from this book since I don’t want to post the cheese recipes themselves, but as you can see I haven’t had a ton of other ideas for posts lately! Plus Mark REALLY wanted me to post this recipe! If you don’t have the book, you can use your favorite vegan “cheese”, or use the recipe I posted in this post. You can also just omit the “cheese” entirely for a Cream of Broccoli soup.

Heat some oil over medium heat in a Dutch oven or large soup pot. Add the onion, celery, carrot, and garlic and cook until onions are soft. Add the potatoes and broccoli and cook another minute or so, then add the broth. Bring to a boil then add the “cheese” and nutritional yeast, stirring until the “cheese” is melted and incorporated. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover, and cook until the potatoes are soft, about half an hour. Remove from the heat and puree using an immersion blender, or, when cooled, in batches in a regular blender. Return to the heat, stir in the lemon juice (adjust the amount to taste) and salt if necessary. (I actually used an all-purpose season salt mix I made up instead of regular salt, but I made it a while ago and have no idea what’s in it! Salt, garlic and onion powders, and other seasonings.)

Serve with crusty bread and a salad. Neither of us even bothered with the bread last night. As Mark says, the soup looks very unassuming and boring, but according to him, the flavor is just spot-on.

I said last time I had more raptor picture, so let’s get to it. While we were in Charleston over the holidays, we went on the swamp garden tour at Magnolia Plantation. I found it very expensive, but then I saw a red shouldered hawk lording over the swamp and my frivolous financial gripes were forgotten. Plus he posed for us for a long time. Such a long time I’m sure my very patient mother-in-law was wishing that bird would fly away so Mark (with his beloved binoculars) and I would mosey along already.

He’s saying here: “I’m a red shoulder!” (He was actually quite fussy, which is typical of red shoulders. They have an attitude.)

He flew away, but just to another nearby tree.

He just kept posing! I love him!

We eventually managed to drag ourselves away and continue the walk.

Hawks are definitely not the only wildlife at the swamp. This is an anhinga:

Egret:

And the real star of the swamp: an alligator! They enjoy sunbathing together with turtles.

I love their creepy smiles.

Quite frankly, I’ve decided I want to live next to a swamp. There’s always something fascinating going on in or around them.

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Corn-Jalapeno Casserole

Here is a side dish I made last night by scrounging through leftover bits I’d saved during the week. It was a nice accompaniment to the rice and beans I also made and Mark absolutely loved it. I made ours quite spicy but you can make it as mild or as spicy as you like by varying the amount of jalapenos.

Corn-Jalapeno Casserole

1/2 cup vegan “cheese” sauce (see note below)
2 Tbsp vegan sour cream
2 Tbsp pickled jalapeno “juice” (optional; I added it for some extra kick)
1-3 Tbsp chopped pickled jalapenos
12 oz frozen corn

Note: Since buying the phenomenal Vegan Artisan Cheese, all of my cheese sauces have been made by melting a hunk of pretty much any of the cheeses from that book, generally by whisking water off the boil into it, then whisking in nutritional yeast flakes, garlic and or onion granules, and sometimes fresh lemon juice, and they’ve all blown away any cheese sauces I’ve made in the past. I had half a cup or so of such a sauce left over from serving over steamed cauliflower the other night, although I can’t explain why because I can eat that stuff straight! If you don’t have Vegan Artisan Cheese, first of all, get it, but if you don’t have time to buy the book, make the rejuvelac, and ferment the cheese, use your favorite “cheesy” sauce. The recipe for an old standby is available here.

A note on the pickled jalapenos: I linked to a refrigerator pickle version of pickled jalapenos that I’ve made in the past, but since I discovered and fell in love with canning this summer, I bought a ton of jalapenos at the farmers market, sliced them, and put them in 4-oz canning jars (which I find adorable), along with a couple sliced of carrots and a smashed garlic clove for each jar. Then I poured a hot brine of 50% white or cider vinegar/50% water and some salt into each jar, leaving 1/2″ headspace, and processed in a hot water bath for 5 minutes. I love this size jar for stuff like this and I have plenty of them to last me through the winter. I also love the spicy, vinegary brine – I mix it with tomato sauce and a few other ingredients to make a nearly instant taco sauce. Hmm, perhaps I should do a separate post on all this stuff?

Okay, to the actual recipe I’m supposed to be writing up:

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. If you can fit your baking dish into your toaster oven, you can use that (I did).

In a bowl, whisk together the “cheese” sauce, sour cream, and jalapeno “juice” (if using). Stir in the jalapenos and corn. Transfer to a small baking dish (I used a glass loaf pan). The mixture should be just a little liquidy; if it’s not, add a little water or non-dairy milk.

Cover and bake for 20 minutes.

Remove the cover and bake uncovered for 20 more minute or until brown and bubbly.

I served this with rice and beans. The beans are Steubens yellow eye beans, which Whole Foods sells in their bulk bins and which I adore. I think they are my favorite bean; they are very tasty and so pretty! I soaked the beans for a few hours then put in my slow cooker with some liquid smoke and minced onion and garlic in some broth and cooked on high for maybe an hour and a half. Then I drained the extra broth off. I had a few slices of leftover seitan, which I chopped pretty small and fried until crispy in a cast iron skillet. I added some vegan bacon salt and onion granules to it as well as several healthy squirts of liquid smoke. Then I added this “bacony” seitan to the beans, as well as some sliced fresh jalapenos, and warmed it all up. This was topped generously with Tabasco and served over rice with the corn jalapeno casserole accompanying it.

And now for raptor news. Mark and I went to Charleston for the holidays this year and while we were there paid a visit to the Center for Birds of Prey, which was really cool and a place I will definitely be volunteering should we ever move down there. Although the guided tour included only a small portion of the center (really just a few of the outdoor education bird cages), the flight demonstration that followed was worth the admission fee. I’m ordinarily opposed to forcing animals to put on “shows” for human enjoyment, but because these are all education birds that can’t be released, I don’t have a problem with training and shows like this, because all education birds in this country are required by federal law to be used in education programs. It’s either that or be euthanized. And I don’t have a problem with the birds that can fly showing that off, especially since this is an impressive show that really sticks with people and they’ll be more apt to remember things they learned and better appreciate raptors. Plus, if any bird they attempt to train doesn’t show signs within one month that they are willing to learn to do it, they stop trying and use that bird for non-flight programs. I also think it’s actually good for raptors to have to work for their meals, which is essentially what they are doing during a flight demonstration like this. Anyway, if you are at all interested in raptors and you are in the Charleston area, I highly recommend The Center for Birds of Prey. Admission isn’t cheap, but I’m happy to donate money to causes like this and felt that the ability to photograph raptors in flight was absolutely worth the admission. Here are some pictures:

The first birds we came to on the guided tour were a pair of eagles, both amputees:

My only raptor volunteering regret is that the Raptor Conservancy of Virginia isn’t a big enough facility to house eagles, except very young ones. We have to transfer any we get to the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

This is an eagle owl; I forget what kind. Eagle owls are all pretty huge though. We have a Eurasian eagle owl (as did the Center for Birds of Prey) at the Raptor Conservancy and it’s enormous.

The rest of the pictures are all from the flight demonstration.

How adorable is this Ural owl? You can see his jesses dangling from the perch. Education birds will usually have leather jesses around their legs. This is what handlers grab onto with their gloves when holding these birds (I know because I get to do this!). When you aren’t doing a flight demonstration (which is not something we do at the Raptor Conservancy), the jesses are attached to a lead whenever the bird is out of its cage.

He’s just been given the signal (he’s prompted with food) to leave that perch and fly to another, and thus he is about to take off:

Because owls are nocturnal, most people very rarely get to see them fly, which is a shame because owls in flight are really amazing. For one thing, they are totally silent.

I never really expected to see a vulture in a flight demonstration, but they had one! This one is for Jes.

Did you know that there is controversy over where to classify New World vultures (like this black vulture) in the animal kingdom? They used to be linked to falcons but genetic testing in the last 20 years or so put them closer to storks. We don’t admit vultures at the Raptor Conservancy. The Center for Birds of Prey, on the other hand, is way into vultures: the bulk of the “tour” was letting us watch them feed the local wild vultures with the scraps their patients refused to eat.

This is some sort of falcon; note he is wearing a radio device on his back. If he flies away during the flight demonstration, this device is how the Center will locate him and bring him home to safety. Remember these are education birds so they have been deemed unable to survive on their own, so catching them if they escape is important for their survival. (I suspect a lot of the birds they use for flight demonstrations are human imprints.)

Here the falcon is on the ground hiding his “prey” of ground beef behind his wings.

Kites seem to be lesser known raptors, at least in this area, but they are neat birds. We don’t have any at the raptor center right now and I don’t think we see too many. But they are fun to watch fly and this guy was clearly loving the opportunity to soar around for a bit on this very clear, beautiful day.

I have yet more raptor pics – we saw a few wild raptors at various parks while we were in Charleston, but I shall save those for another day.

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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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Chincoteague

Sigh, October. It’s my favorite month and it contains all sort of fun events and celebrations, but it’s always so busy! Because my birthday fell on a Saturday this year, I decided we needed to go away for the weekend to celebrate both our birthdays (Mark’s is just a few days after mine). Mark wanted to go to the Blue Ridge mountains, but because the fall colors are so spectacular there, everything in that area books like a year in advance. I’ve been wanting to go to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge for a while, so we booked a B&B on Chincoteague Island. There was a while there during the furlough when I thought the weekend was going to be ruined (as all national parks and refuges were closed), but fortunately the government reopened the day before we were scheduled to leave.

Chincoteague Island and NWR are located just south of the Maryland/Virginia border; in fact, although we live in Virginia, most of our drive was in Maryland. Although like many people from the Baltimore area I spent lots of adolescent summers in Maryland’s Ocean City and Delaware’s Rehobeth Beach, I’d never made it to nearby Assateague Island or Chincoteague right below it, each home to a herd of wild ponies. When I started getting into wildlife photography, however, it became a required destination.

We stayed at Miss Molly’s Inn, famed location where Misty of Chincoteague was written. Miss Molly’s is charming, the host, Sam, was funny and very friendly (I barely saw his wife), and they were happy to accommodate our vegan diets. The entire island is small enough that you can pretty much walk the whole thing, but the inn is conveniently located on the main road with most of the shops and restaurants. We stayed in the room off the upper deck. The room itself was kind of tiny, but check out our awesome deck!

A small chilled bottle of complimentary Prosecco and a birthday card awaited us, which I thought was sweet. We drank red wine and Prosecco …

…watching the sunset from the deck. Lovely!

There was a harvest moon that first evening, and once it got dark enough, I noticed an arc of light circling it, with two rainbow patches to the left and right of it. I’ve seen that happen with the sun before and knew it was called sun dogs, and though I don’t recall seeing such a thing around the moon, I decided what we were seeing were moon dogs. Turns out I was right: moon dogs exist. It’s kind of hard to discern from the picture – it’s somewhat difficult to photograph without burning out the moon – but it was really neat in reality.

Chincoteague is not much of a hot vegan destination, although you won’t starve there. It’s mostly seafood, though all the seafood places serve pasta. I sort of hate getting pasta marinara out, though, because it’s something I can make deliciously at home in my sleep. There is a single Vietnamese (the only Asian place, I believe) restaurant on the island, Saigon Village, but fortunately it was two blocks from Miss Molly’s and had plenty of vegan-friendly options. We ate outside on the porch which was nicer than the brightly lit interior, although it was getting a bit nippy, and we soon regretted not just getting take-out and eating on our deck with some wine. Nonetheless, it was a good meal.

Mark ordered a spicy noodle dish with tofu. The waitress asked him how hot he wanted it on a scale of 10 out of 10 and tried warning him against it when he said “10”. However, she gave in when he said he grows and eats raw ghost peppers. Mark was subsequently suitably impressed with the spiciness of the noodles. In fact, it took him longer to eat his food than it did me mine, and that’s UNHEARD of because I’m a notoriously slow eater and he’s really fast. However, the noodles weren’t so hot that they had no flavor and I was quite happy to eat more than a few forkfuls.

I ordered barbecued tofu, which was pretty yummy. Loved the grill marks.

And that’s all the food pictures I remembered to take! (And Mark had to remind me to take those!) The other night we ordered pizza delivery. The pizza from Famous Pizza wasn’t the most amazing pizza I’ve ever had in my life, but they were very friendly, didn’t sound at all surprised I didn’t want cheese, and it arrived a few minutes before they said it would, even on a Saturday night.

I was disappointed Poseidon’s Pantry was closed the entire weekend we were there, but Sea Star Cafe had several sandwiches and vegan wraps to choose from and we had a nice lunch shielded from a light rain under an umbrella at one of their tables. (There are no eat-in tables.)

Saturday morning we headed out to the wildlife refuge and were rewarded with ponies! They were pretty far away – hard to see without my 400mm lens – and it was misting most of the morning, so my pictures aren’t super sharp, but wild horses are exciting nonetheless.

Wanna know what I look like when I’m photographing wildlife?

We saw the Assateague lighthouse …

… and climbed to the top.

I almost didn’t recognize this great blue heron when I first saw him, until he turned his head slightly. Until then he was almost 2-dimensional – herons look a bit weird straight-on!

We saw a LOT of great blue herons.

If you look closely in this picture, you can just barely make out a bunch of birds OTHER than the heron, hiding!

I believe this is an immature double crested cormorant. They are funny.

They reminded me of something out of Disney when posed like this for some reason.

Another…

Great egrets are a big thing in Chincoteague, after the ponies.

Assateague National Seashore is part of Chincoteague NWR. Mark was sad that due to weather conditions he was unable to get an on-sand permit for his Jeep.

But not so sad he couldn’t delight in the treasures he found.

Sunday we visited NASA’s Wallops facility.

We also stopped by Blackwater NWR, which was just a few miles out of our way. Lots more herons! How mean does this one look?

All in all, it was a very lovely weekend! And now…Halloween party time.

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Getting rid of this cold: Thai “Chicken” Noodle Soup

I’m still trying to kick the cold I mentioned in my last post, but I did have the energy to make some illness-defeating soup last night: Thai “chicken” noodle.

Thai “Chicken” Noodle Soup
Adapted from http://thaifood.about.com/od/thaisnacks/r/chickenoodlesou.htm

12 oz flat rice noodles (wide or thin, your choice)
2 large shallots, thinly sliced
5-6 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
8 cups vegan “chicken” broth
1 thumb-length hunk of ginger, grated
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
2 Tbsp rice vinegar
2 Tbsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp brown sugar
1 or 2 bay leaves
1 huge carrot, sliced on the diagonal
1-2 stalks celery, sliced on the diagonal
1-2 chilies, sliced on the diagonal (depending on the heat level of the chili and how hot you want your soup)
1 stalk lemongrass, minced
2 bay leaves (use a few kaffir lime leaves instead if you have them)
1/4 cup coconut milk
1 1/2 cups vegan “chicken” strips or “breasts”, pan-fried and chopped (honestly, this is really optional if you aren’t a fan of mock meats)
1/4 cup chopped cilantro

Put the rice noodles in a large pot and cover with cold water. Soak for 20 minutes (or longer), then bring water to a boil. Once the water is boiling, remove it from the heat and let the noodles sit until they are soft (this will only take a few minutes). Drain and rinse with cold water to stop them from cooking. Set aside.

Heat some oil in a Dutch oven and add the shallots and garlic. Cook until beginning to brown. Add the broth, ginger, lime juice, rice vinegar, and soy sauce. If you have a large tea strainer that closes, put the bay leaves and lemongrass in it and put it in the pot. (If you don’t have a tea strainer, add the lemongrass with the shallots and the bay leaves with the broth, remembering to remove the bay leaves later. I use the tea strainer because lemongrass never seems to get entirely soft for me and I don’t like eating hard bits of it in soup.) Bring everything to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the carrot, celery, and chilies and continue to simmer until the carrots and celery are soft.

Add the coconut milk, chopped “chicken”, and cilantro and simmer gently for another few minutes.

To serve, put a heap of rice noodles in a bowl and ladle broth over them. I sprinkled mine with thinly sliced scallions and had some sriracha and lime wedges nearby.

This was an interesting change of pace and certainly had all the ingredients I look for in a make-me-feel-better meal (garlic, ginger, chilies, broth), although pho is my all-time favorite. I’d have made it tonight if I hadn’t been out of star anise!

Pictures of animals, you say? Here is a great blue heron. I see at least one of them every time I’m out. It’s weird.

Tree swallow.

Not an animal, but named for one: cattails.

And to wrap things up, a raccoon trying to steal cookies, probably successfully.

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Blue Ridge Mountain weekend

I really do plan to start posting recipes more frequently so I feel guilty making a non-recipe post today, but as it turns out, I have a cold and I simply don’t have the energy to cook anything interesting, let alone photograph and write about it. However, I did just return from a beautiful weekend in the mountains with Mark and I have some pictures, so that’ll have to suffice for today.

As a surprise for me, Mark made reservations at a B&B in the Shenandoah Valley – about a 2 1/2 hour drive from our home in Northern Virginia – and we spent the weekend taking in the sights. Although we stayed in one of their three cottages, which typically do not include breakfast, Fox Hill is vegan-friendly and were able to fit us in for breakfast one morning, where we enjoyed bagels, fruit, and vegan French toast. And I loved the ability to make our dinners in our full kitchen.

Fox Hill grows corn; here is a picture of the back of the B&B from the cornfield:

Mark is always striving to get so far away from city lights that we can see the stars without light pollution. Despite clouds, we had a great view of the stars, although Mark was disappointed we could hear traffic noises from I-81.

We spent much of Saturday driving around the northern part of Blue Ridge Parkway.

Yankee Falls is visible right from the parkway.

Nearby, Pig enjoyed his own little Pig-size falls.

Typical view from the parkway:

Mark enjoyed taking his Jeep down some of the logging and narrow local gravel roads, that seem to go for miles, through dense forest, passing nothing but the occasional abandoned camp site. Here is a creek we found in the middle of nowhere.

And okay, here is the real reason I wanted to do a post! I PHOTOGRAPHED AN OWL! This is a barred owl and I was so excited because a few weeks ago my aunt sent me a picture of a barred owl that my uncle had taken at their cabin in West Virginia and I was very jealous because by nature, owls are REALLY hard to see in trees and as they are nocturnal, you rarely see them flying around, so my hopes of ever being able to photograph a wild owl were pretty low. Then what did we see flying into a tree less than a month later, off some non-road in the George Washington National Forest? A barred owl! He was sooo cute, all hunched down trying as hard to see us through the leaves as we were trying to see him!

Back at Fox Hill, we went back out after dark to take more star pictures, but found the sky completely covered in clouds, with non-stop lightning brightening the sky….which was perhaps even more fun to photograph than the stars.

I don’t like doing a lot of processing with my pictures. For one thing, I don’t like the look of overly processed photographs, and for another, I don’t have the time or patience to spend hours behind a computer working on an image, and for yet another, I’ve had no success getting Photoshop to run on Linux. If I absolutely need to, I can use gimp to do Photoshoppy things, but I’m embarrassingly ignorant on how to use it and all the photography books and sites I read are Photoshop-oriented. However, it’s very rare I don’t make some minor change to a photograph such as adjusting the white balance or exposure, or in the case of wildlife pictures, usually cropping, so I usually spend a minute or two on each photo in Aftershot Pro. I was surprised therefore to see the pictures of a Christmas tree farm I took near Vesuvius, Virginia, looked perfect right off the camera. All I did was convert these from RAW to JPG.

I guess it was the lighting from the storm clouds or something; something about this scene just captivated me.

Sunday afternoon we got back on Blue Ridge Parkway, heading north towards home this time. Blue Ridge Parkway turns into Skyline Drive at Shenandoah National Park, which after its full 105 miles deposited us near Route 66 in Front Royal about an hour from home. This drive took considerably longer than I-81 but is of course magnitudes more beautiful and we stopped at a high percentage of overlooks.

Another first: I see and photograph does and fawns frequently, including in our own yard. So this mother and two children in Shenandoah were, while lovely, not that special.

But….I don’t think I’ve ever photographed a buck before!

Finally, here’s an overlook near the northern end of Skyline Drive.

All in all, an absolutely perfect weekend – minus the cold I seem to have come down with. And now I’m going to curl up with a book and feel sorry for myself until my throat stops this stupid tickling. I have another post I want to do this week, so hopefully I’ll be feeling better soon.

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