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.


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

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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Moroccan Meal: Carrot and Chickpea Tagine; Green Bean and New Potato Saute

I’ve realized I’m sad about my infrequent postings, if for no other reason than often I’d like a record of what I’ve made. Sometimes I want to repeat it and can’t remember what I did. I’ve been so busy that I haven’t spent as much time as usual cooking, but I am still cooking, and I’ve made some pretty good stuff, too. Instead of dismissing the idea I should do a post on it because I’m busy, or it doesn’t seem that exciting, or I’m tired, I’m going to just do it anyway. So with fresh resolve, I bring you a Moroccan meal of Carrot and Chickpea Tagine with Green Bean and New Potato Saute. Neither of these are original recipes. I decided to base the meal around the green beans I got at the farmers market so I hit the internet looking for ideas and came across a Moroccan recipe, so I went with that theme for the whole meal.

Smucky recently spent three weeks in Morocco, so I asked him to share a couple of his favorite pictures to give this post a more authentic Moroccan flair than my food probably will, so first let’s start off with the very handsome Smucky in front of a gorgeous backdrop:

He asked if I wanted food pictures and I said not necessarily, but when he sent me this one, it was so happy I had to include it.

Smucks apparently had an amazing time in the desert. He says I’d really like Morocco, so I guess I’d better put it on my list of places to go…

Possibly the greatest thing about Morocco are the GOATS IN TREES. That’s enough of a reason to go right there!

And now the recipes. We don’t do Moroccan too often, so this meal was a nice change of pace. If you make both of these dishes for the same meal, start the tagine first since it takes longer.

Carrot and Chickpea Tagine
very slightly adapted from

I’m not sure if it’s really a tagine if it’s not cooked in a tagine, but this was pretty tasty.

2 cups roughly chopped carrot
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp turmeric
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 cup vegetable broth
1 can chickpeas, drained
1/4 cup raisins (golden preferred)
chopped parsley

Heat some oil over medium high heat in the base of a tagine or in a large skillet or Dutch oven. Add all of the ingredients except the broth, chickpeas, raisins, and parsley and saute for a minute or two. Add the broth, bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer until the carrots are somewhat tender. Add the chickpeas, raisins, and parsley and cook until the carrots are completely tender and the chickpeas are heated through. Serve over couscous.

Green Bean and New Potato Saute
very slightly adapted from

1 lb green beans, trimmed
1 lb new potatoes, chopped in half
2 cloves garlic, pressed
1/2 tsp gound cumin
1/2 tsp hot paprika or 1/4 tsp cayenne
salt to taste
chopped parsley

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Put the green beans in and cook until just tender, about 8 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and plunge into an ice bath (or if you are lazy, run cold water over them in a strainer). Bring the water to a boil again if necessary, then add the potatoes and cook until tender. Drain and plunge into an ice bath (or run cold water over them in a strainer). Put some oil in a large skillet and add the garlic, cumin, paprika or cayenne, and salt, and saute for a minute or two. Add the green beans and potatoes and saute until heated through. Stir in the parsley.

Personally, I felt both of these dishes required a finish of lemon juice, so I served with lemon wedges. However, I pretty much think everything requires a lemon juice finish. I LOVE LEMONS.

My plate:

And this is Mark’s artfully arranged plate:

I’m going to talk about books – and music – for a little bit if you don’t mind. I know many of you are big readers like I am. So, Fortinbras was here the other day and after dinner I announced to him and Mark that I wanted to play my current favorite song for them and went over to my iPod and cued up Miriam Makeba’s Pata Pata, which I’ve been playing over and over again. Well, within 10 seconds of my starting the song, both Fortinbras and Mark said, practically in unison, “Yeah, that’s DEFINITELY a Renae song!” Which I thought was interesting because for one thing they’d only heard a few notes and for another, it’s not like I listen to a ton of African music. But either there is some very predictable quality about the music I like or it’s just that there’s no one in the world who knows me better than those two.

Shortly thereafter I started reading Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead and for some reason I was reminded of Mark and Fortinbras immediately pegging Pata Pata as a Renae song, because I kind of immediately pegged Bird Sense as a Renae book. While 92.1% of the books I read are fiction (and yes, that’s a real statistic; I keep track), the non-fiction books I read are, I suppose, somewhat predictable. They are all science-related for one thing, if not physics, then neuroscience or biology, and I require good writing skills on the part of the author. (I can’t abide a poorly written book, no matter how fascinating the subject matter.) And if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I’m obsessed with raptors. So a book using science to explain how it feels to be a bird? I’m all over it! I’m about halfway through it and it’s great, other than a few disturbing parts about various experiments, particularly those from a century or more ago. (Sorry, I just don’t think it’s cool to rip a bird’s eyes out to find out if it needs to see to fly.)

Here is a picture of a raptor, who is definitely using his eyes to stare me down. It’s an osprey. They always get pissed at me when I walk under their nest. They fly out of it and circle around me squawking.

I learned about Bird Sense by talking to one of the people handling the birds at the raptor safari I went to, when I rather uncharacteristically struck up a conversation with her and in the course of our conversation she recommended the book. Usually I’m super shy, but I’m learning to be less shy around rehabbers and other people I might learn from, and it always pays off.

Another interesting thing is Bird Sense referred to Thomas Nagel’s philosophical essay What is it like to be a bat?. That’s not too interesting in and of itself because it makes sense that a book about what it’s like to be a bird would make a reference to an essay about what it’s like to be a bat. But what’s weird is the book I read right before starting Bird Sense was Bright Lights, Big City, a TOTALLY different kind of book, which also referred to What is it like to be a bat?. I thought that a strange coincidence!

To bring it back around to music, my other favorite song right now is Pink Martini’s Sympathique, which I discovered when a few commenters recognized the qunioa salad I posted a few weeks ago as originally coming from China Forbes, the singer of Pink Martini. A strange way to find new music, but I LOVE the song (it’s also very much a “Renae song”) and I actually understand 95% of it (I refuse to look up the lyrics, but Mark likes it when I translate it as it plays), plus the “je ne veux pas travailler” sentiment is really fitting for me right now. I pretty much always want to dejeuner though!

How abouts I wrap up this possibly too-chatty post with some pictures from Occoquan Bay NWR, where I went to celebrate the solstice Friday?

Tree swallows:

This is not a great picture, but I find it amusing for some reason, plus I’ve never photographed a pileated woodpecker before so I kept it. (And it reminds me of Still Life with Woodpecker.)

Doe, a deer:


One of the creeks:

Well, je ne veux pas travailler, mais j’ai besoin d’argent, soooo je vais me couche…

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Green Salsa Tomato Burritos

I bought some green tomatoes at the farmers market yesterday, mostly because I don’t think I’ve ever actually bought green tomatoes before. I figured I’d fry them up somehow, but when I was surveying the kitchen for burrito filling ideas (at the suggestion of Smucky), I came across the green tomatoes and thought I could incorporate them somehow. Aided by a recipe I found online, I decided to make a salsa with them, and it was pretty tasty, so I shall share.

A green tomato.

Green Tomato Salsa
Lightly adapted from

2 medium green tomatoes, cored and quartered
1 small or 1/2 medium to large onion, roughly chopped
1 serrano or jalapeno pepper, roughly chopped
3 large cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1/2 tsp sugar (I used brown sugar because my brown sugar is easier to get to than my white sugar)
pinch or two of cumin seeds
pinch of salt
splash of olive oil
juice of 1 lime
1/4 cup cilantro leaves

Place all of the ingredients except the lime juice and cilantro in a medium saucepan with a little bit of water (2-3 tablespoons). Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat and allow to simmer for about 15 minutes or until tomatoes are soft.

Use a slotted spoon to move the mixture to a food processor.

Add the lime juice and cilantro and pulse until it’s as smooth or as chunky as you like. Let cool. Serve with tortilla chips or enjoy in a burrito as described below.

Green Tomato Salsa Burritos
Makes enough filling for 4-6 burritos depending on size

1 cup TVP
scant 1 cup vegan “beef” broth
1 packet Goya seasoning with corinader and annatto (optional)
1 cup cooked rice (I especially like rice cooked in broth for this recipe)
fresh cooked corn from 1 ear
1 recipe Green Tomato Salsa (see above)
flour tortillas

Heat the broth to a boil and whisk in the Goya seasoning if using. Pour the broth over the TVP, cover, and set aside for 10 minutes to rehydrate.

Assemble the burritos by putting down a line of rice, then topping it with the TVP mixture, corn, and plenty of salsa.

Roll them up. Burritos are not the easiest things to photograph, but trust me, this was tasty.

So, what else have I been up to? Raccoons, mostly. It’s the height of baby season and we are inundated. This little tyke arrived one day a few weeks ago and only had one ear! This was a birth defect.

Some of you may remember the the story of Emmy, who acted as a surrogate mother for some of our babies last year. We weren’t able to give any of our babies to her this year as she had a full litter of her own to take care of. A couple of weeks ago she moved the whole brood from her usual nest box to another one in a nearby tree. These pictures were taken two weeks ago when the babies were exactly eight weeks old. It was a very hot day and Emmy is trying to get some air by sleeping in outside. One of her babies woke up and got curious about the outside world. These are pictures of this brave little one venturing outside the nest box on his own for possibly the very first time.

“I’m going to do it!”

“Eh, that’s probably enough for today.”

“I’ll just hang here for a while.”

In other news, I’m SO GLAD it’s farmers market season. I don’t know how I survive without it. The only annoying part of the farmers market is bringing home my heavy basket of produce and being hassled by my cats, who LOVE chewing on anything green. Gomez’s face is NOT supposed to be in my food, but I was really charmed by the pattern of these garlic scapes sitting in my basket.

I’ve been continuing to go to parks whenever I’m able, though not as often as I’d like. The other day at Burke Lake Park I saw this luna moth. It was huge – at least 4″ wide.

An isolated picnic table at Burke Lake Park:
<img src="'ll%20eat%20lunch%20at%20this%20table%20some%20day.jpg".

And here are some pictures I took along Marumsco Creek, which runs between Occoquan Bay NWR and Veterans Memorial Park.

Mostly I saw a lot of different kinds of turtles. This is a painted turtle:

Eastern black snake.

This frog was my favorite.

An infrared shot of the creek.

I very narrowly missed getting drenched in a storm – the first fat raindrops fell from the sky when I was about 100 feet from my car and by the time my camera and I were safely inside, it was pouring. You could say I started hurrying back when the sky turned ominous, which is true, but the rather Renae form of hurrying that involves stopping and taking lots of pictures.

Finally, happy Bloomsday to all you literature lovers and Happy Father’s Day to all you fathers, especially my own, who is pictured here helping my mother brush his dog’s teeth. Good oral hygiene is important for everyone!

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Japanese-flavored Springtime Quinoa Salad

I made this salad a couple of weeks ago after seeing something very similar on the internet somewhere; unfortunately I can’t find the post despite an awful lot of searching. Anyway, it was awesome because usually when I make quinoa, Mark puts five grains – I’m not kidding, five grains – of it on his plate for his serving, because I yell at him if he doesn’t take any, but he gobbled up an entire bowl of this with nary a complaint. In fact, he discovered this spring that he loves fresh fava beans, which I’ve included in the salad, and he therefore sang its praises.

Japanese-flavored Springtime Quinoa Salad

1 cup red quinoa (or any quinoa), rinsed
2 cups water or broth
as many fresh fava bean pods as you can stand to shell – try to do about a pound because they yield a tiny fraction of their weight in actual beans
1/4 cup ponzu (a Japanese soy-citrus sauce available in Asian markets)
2 sheets toasted nori, ripped into pieces (also available in Asian markets)
1 avocado, chopped
1 lemon, cut into wedges

Put the quinoa and water or broth into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and let simmer for about 15 minutes or until quinoa is cooked. If necessary, drain off remaining liquid. Return to the pot, cover, and let rest for 10-15 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring another pot of water to boil. While it’s coming to a boil, remove the fava beans from their pods. When the water is boiling, put the beans in and let boil for 30-60 seconds. Drain and immediately plunge the beans into an ice water bath. When cool, pop them out of their skins – I stick my thumbnail into the skin to make a hole, then pop them out. When the favas are peeled, hit a small amount of oil in a small skillet, then saute the favas with a little salt, until they are cooked through, about 3-5 minutes.

Stir the ponzu into the quinoa. Toss in the favas, avocado, and nori. Serve with lemon wedges. Feel virtuous eating it.

And now a wildlife update. Whenever I send my parents a link to a batch of pictures, if there is a snake in any of them, my mother always responds, “Gross, a snake!”. If she ever ran across one in her travels, I imagine she’d very quickly head in the opposite direction. When I, on the other hand, see a snake, I calmly toss my bag on the ground five feet away, switch lenses, and stick my camera in its face. Look at this handsome little fella! Well, maybe not so little – this is a black rat snake, one of the largest in this area.

I love trying to capture them with their tongues out.

I wouldn’t say my mother-in-law is overly fond of snakes either. When she spotted this snake in her yard last week, she rushed into the house to identify whether or not is was poisonous. Meanwhile I rushed up to the snake with my camera! It’s an Eastern garter snake. Not only is it not poisonous, but my mother-in-law decided I had actually made it look “cute” in my picture!

Speaking of my mother-in-law, as some of you may know, she lives in Charleston, SC, so obviously if I was lurking around with the snakes in her backyard, Mark and I were in Charleston ourselves last week. We were preparing for the beautiful wedding of Mark’s lovely cousin, so we didn’t have time for our usual sightseeing, but we spent a lot of time in the park with the dog and for the wedding. Here is an infrared shot of a wonderful oak that’s in the park.

Last night was yet another time I wandered off to Occoquan Bay NWR more for exercise than pictures. I’ve learned my lesson, though, and always take the big camera and the big lens just in case. I was also extremely glad I thought to pack my macro lens, which garnered me those rat snake pictures above (and some even more exciting ones below), but the telephoto came in handy for the obligatory osprey shot.

And guess what! I got another turkey picture! Just prior to sunset is the time to find them, apparently.

The absolute best, though, was…the beavers! Because these are my first beaver pictures ever!

I’ve only ever seen the very quick blur of a beaver once last summer, but last night I was very lucky. I guess I approached the creek so quietly (and I was literally the only person in the park at the time) they didn’t notice me at first and I was able to watch a couple of beavers actually working on their dam. They are so cute and funny! For several minutes, they seemed totally cool with me – and this picture was taken with my macro lens; he’s only about six feet from me. After a while, though, they got nervous and started going away. One of them was under water and surfaced right in front of me, saw me, freaked the hell out, and ducked back into the water so fast I started laughing out loud. I didn’t mean to scare him, but the look on his face was priceless. Wish I’d been able to get a picture of THAT. Once he booked it out of there, that was the end of the beaver show, but I was giddy. Is it weird that just seeing animals makes me ridiculously happy? Like, I can truly say that getting to see beavers was the best part of my day and probably my week.

I never get out that place having done any actual exercising, by the way. I mean, I get exercise from the walking, but basically I’m meandering slowly with a probably beatific look on my face taking a bunch of pictures.

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Raptors, raptors, raptors!

I’m going to dispense with all pretense of food for this post. This is a very non-vegan post in that it’s all about very non-vegan beings: birds of prey, or raptors. I love them! I’m just fascinated by raptors. So when I somehow stumbled over the Capitol Photography Center website while looking for something completely non-related and found an upcoming “raptor photo safari”, I was all over it. This happened this past Saturday and let me tell you, it ended up being such a fabulous day. It was one of those days where you don’t win the lottery or anything obviously fantastic like that, but at the end of the day you look back and realize, “I did everything I love today!”.

I think there are a couple different schools of thought when it comes to wildlife photography: one feels that it’s easier and safer to photograph captive animals, and also more interesting in that you have access to many animals you’d never see otherwise, while the other feels that there’s no challenge in captive animal photography. I am more a member of the latter school, although most of that is because I don’t believe animals should be in captivity in the first place. I don’t go to zoos, which rules out nearly all of my chances of seeing captive animals…I’m the rare specimen for whom it’s easier to find wild animals than it is captive animals! Well, other than captive raccoons, but all of our raccoons eventually become wild. I was interested in this particular photo safari, however, because it was held at a nature center where they presented several different raptors for us to photograph in a natural setting, which would allow me to get much closer to them than is generally possible. All of the animals are “education animals”, which are injured animals that have been rehabbed but are non-releasable for various reasons. I don’t have a problem with education animals being held in captivity. It’s either that or euthanasia for them and all the ones I have met have been well loved and cared for. I go to a lot of trainings and the like where I see education animals, but mostly they are being held by handlers and we are indoors – doesn’t make for fabulous pictures. So this was a really cool opportunity. They do it a few times a year (the next one will be on my birthday – October 19!); if you live in the DC/Baltimore area and that sounds interesting to you, I recommend it.

How about some pictures, you say? Well, of course. The first bird to come out was a barred owl. I think they said this was a male, because he was pretty small and I know that like many raptors, male owls are smaller than female owls.

Next up was one of my favorite owls, the Great Horned. I got a picture of the handler bringing him out because I WANT THAT TO BE MY JOB. Actually, I’ve been giving serious consideration to volunteering with a raptor group here, in which case, it MIGHT one day be my job! (Where by “job” I mean another thing I do that involves getting pooped on with no pay.)

You can see the jesses in this picture – the leather straps that tether the bird in place. He had enough mobility to hop around, but not enough to fly away.

This is why I love Great Horned owls – their EYES! Torticia makes this exact face at me all the time; I’ve always told her she looks like an owl when she does it.

Next was a red-shouldered hawk. This one is missing an eye. We also saw a red-tailed hawk, which is similar but larger, but I don’t seem to have uploaded a picture of that one.

I must say, Mark is more perceptive than I sometimes give him credit for. He was looking at my pictures later and when he saw the next one, he said, “this eagle doesn’t look…all there.” I don’t know how he can tell from the picture, but this bald eagle is brain damaged.

Brain damage or not, he was majestic. Eagles are just special, man. Another thing about Mark is he and I think alike, which is scary. He saw the next one and said, “he’s strutting!”, without knowing I had named this file, simply, “strutting”.

I want to hold an eagle.

I’d never seen a golden eagle in person. This one had been shot on the Maryland Eastern Shore. WHO SHOOTS AN EAGLE??? What is WRONG with people? Every time I think of whoever it was who shot this animal, all I can do is comfort myself by thinking of whoever it was who found the injured animal and took it to safety, and the person who meticulously removed all of the buckshot from its wing and performed surgery on it, and the people who care for it every day. That’s one bad person and many good people. The world is a good place, right?

The instructor told us he had requested the Eastern screech owl for the “cute” factor. He’s so tiny!! Smaller than my cats!

The handler didn’t say the peregrine falcon was her favorite animal, but she was clearly very attached to and proud of him. He’s 15 years old and has been all over the country, including a stint at Dollywood teaching other rehabbed peregrines how to be peregrines. I didn’t know that was even a thing that Dollywood did.

That was all of the animals. We had about 15 minutes with each one. The instructor was there to give tips and help with your camera or photography if you needed it. I would definitely do it again, although I admit that although I got some great shots, I didn’t quite feel the same indescribable joy that I do when I get a picture of something new when I’m out in nature. So later in the day I decided it was far too nice out to do my daily walk on the treadmill and instead headed to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, my default park. I was only going with the intent to walk for exercise, so although I grabbed my small mirrorless camera just in case, I wasn’t expecting to take many pictures. I wasn’t finished going through and editing the more than 1,200 pictures (!!!) I’d taken on the photo safari! Well, five minutes into my walk, what should walk across my path but a wild turkey! This was amazing because I’ve seen them there before but I’ve never been able to get a picture because they are very shy and very fast. Usually you just hear them rustling about and never actually see them. So getting a picture of one has been a goal of mine. When you least expect things…

No, it’s not nearly as good a picture as any of the ones above, but it was in a way more fulfilling. I continued walking and eventually came upon a tree full of vultures. And found my camera battery was dead! As was the spare! I was so mad! So I practically ran 1/2 mile back to my car to get my “big” camera, which is a LOT better at telephoto shots anyway, then trotted back to the vulture tree, and they were all still patiently waiting for me. (Okay, they were probably patiently waiting for dinner and not the paparazzi.)

Two turkey and one black vulture:

One turkey and one black vulture:

Black vulture being a vulture:

Vulture flying into the setting sun:

Driving home from the refuge, I realized what a great day it had been, other than the waking up at 5 a.m. part. I was presented with a bunch of raptors to photograph as I pleased; the weather could only be described as “perfection”; because the photo safari was in Maryland, I got to spend hours driving my beloved convertible on a perfect spring day; I spent a couple of hours relaxing and editing pictures in my favorite chair; I went to my favorite park at sunset and got a picture of an animal I’ve been trying to photograph for a long time, and I got great shots of lots of vultures. AND I was exhausted when I got home – the best kind of exhausted – and Mark surprised me by making dinner. That, my friends, is my idea of a GREAT day! And guess what – my next post WILL have a recipe.

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Hello, here is an eagle

I HAVE BEEN SO BUSY. I’ve been working a lot of hours over the last month or so; food has unfortunately taken a backseat. I should be able to relax after a big software release in the next week or two, just in time for wildlife baby season to really get started and take up all my free time. Fortunately the farmers market will be opening in a few weeks, which is certain to be inspiring. In the meantime, I don’t have a recipe tonight, but I did get some eagle and osprey pictures yesterday so I thought I’d share.

Saturday night I asked Mark what he wanted to do the following day and he said, “see an eagle.” As far as I know, the best chances of seeing a bald eagle in this area are Mason Neck State Park, so I suggested we go there, although on the drive there the next day, I encouraged Mark not to get his hopes up, because that’s how it is with wildlife. He insisted he was keeping his hopes up because we WOULD see an eagle. So we got to the park and headed for the lookout point where we saw an eagle about this time last year. At first we saw only omnipresent turkey vultures, but within three minutes of our arrival, Mark’s eagle arrived.

I guess there’d been no need for the “don’t get your hopes up” speech.

Although I see them with some regularity these days, eagles never fail to instill a sense of awe in me. I know that as a product of the ’80s I abuse the word “awesome” but bald eagles truly are awesome in every sense of the word.

After landing (on the exact same branch we saw him or a friend last year), he sat there for a good long time and preened. He’s all convoluted in this shot!

After watching the eagle for a while we decided to head to the other side of Belmont Bay to see if they’d cleaned up Occoquan Bay NWR of all the accumulated trash the day before as their website had promised. (They had, thankfully!) This time of year you are guaranteed to see a lot of nesting ospreys at Occoquan; no worries about dashed hoped there. This one is returning to the nest with half of a fish plucked from the bay.

And this one is working on his nest.

We also saw tons of painted turtles sunning on one of the first truly nice days of the year.

Ordinarily I’d have tried to look this bird up in one of my books, but I just didn’t have time, so I’m not sure what it is, but I thought it was cute.

In non-wildlife news, we went to see the physicist Brian Greene speak in McLean a couple of weekends ago. Which is relevant to this blog because he’s a long-time vegan!

I had him sign one of my books, and Pig got himself involved. Brian said it was very nice meeting me and my pig!

Finally, Torticia.

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A rare request, and some winter wildlife

No food today, sorry. I do, however, have a request, and then some raptor tales and pictures. First, it’s been a while, so here is a raccoon! This is Sophie and she’s super sweet.

I don’t think I’ve put a name to the wildlife sanctuary where I volunteer and take all the pictures of raccoons I’m always treating you to or boring you with, depending on your perspective. It’s Dogue Hollow Wildlife Sanctuary and you can also find us on Facebook where we post a lot of pictures. I’ve been occasionally asked by readers how they can give me something to thank me for my recipes or pictures or something I’ve sent them. I don’t want or need anything. I keep this blog because I enjoy doing it and because this is my only contact with the vegan community. Mark and I are able to pay our server costs without a struggle and I’ll never subject you to advertising. But while I don’t need anything, Dogue Hollow does, and although I’d be uncomfortable asking for donations in my capacity as a blogger, in my capacity as a Dogue Hollow board member, I’m kind of obligated to make my first feeble fundraising attempt.

We have two very large projects we desperately need to do as soon as possible at Dogue Hollow: we need to build a new nursery for baby raccoons, which will require about $6,000, and we need to install a generator, which will require about $14,000. Dogue Hollow was hit hard by the derecho last July: we were without power or water for 5 days in the 100+ degree heat. Had the storm hit a few weeks earlier when the babies were younger, we’d almost have certainly have lost some of them; we were very lucky they all survived, but it was a terrible strain on our resources. It is VERY hard to keep nearly 50 baby animals alive without running water for cleaning or electricity to refrigerate formula and medicine. The weather around here is only getting weirder and we are likely to lose power for multiple days during any bad storm. Hence the need for the generator. Our first priority is the new nursery, which we need because we’ve been taking in more and more baby raccoons every year and we simply no longer have room to house them. If we don’t have more room, we run the risk of having to refuse raccoons simply for lack of space.

These needs put our operating costs very much over our normal annual budget, and we usually scrape by as it is. So we’re trying to ramp up fundraising right now…though none of us are fundraising experts. (By the way, if you are and you want to volunteer, let me know! And also if you live in Northern Virginia and want to volunteer in some other capacity, let me know.) We’ve opened a special savings account specifically for these two projects and kicked it off with two very generous donations totaling $3,500. I don’t expect most donations to be anywhere near that large, but they put us more than halfway to getting the new nursery, which means smaller donations of even $10 will go a long way to getting us the rest of the way there. So if you’ve ever wanted to thank me for anything, or if you like my raccoons stories and pictures, or if you just want to help wildlife, please consider making a donation, however small. You can do so either via Paypal on our website or by sending a check. You don’t have to, but if you’d like, you can mention with your donation that Renae sent you – I don’t get anything but gratitude from the other board members, but it helps us to know how people heard about us.

This just in! After discussing this with Mark, I can offer anyone who makes a donation of $20 or more a free custom drawing by Mark. Mark is an amazing artist. He could seriously have a second career drawing comics. The only restriction is you must request something “fanciful” that leaves him room for creative interpretation: for example, a raccoon eating a sandwich, not Batman. He’s also very good at aliens, monsters, and the like. This is a picture he drew for me last Christmas.

If you’d like to receive a drawing from Mark, you’ll have to let me know personally as Mark isn’t making this offer to Dogue Hollow in general, so email me at if you are interested.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, I have some other random wildlife pictures. Last weekend I trekked out to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Part of my mission was to play with my new camera, a micro 4/3 I got for traveling, which I LOVED for our Charleston trip. Unfortunately, it’s really not the camera for birds in flight and within 10 minutes of arriving at the refuge I was mad I hadn’t brought my dSLR because there was a bald eagle soaring over my head. This was the best picture I could get and I was lucky for it:

That turned out not to be the only eagle I saw last week. I later saw one standing on the side of a busy parkway, which kind of freaked me out because you just don’t expect to see a bald eagle on the side of the road when you’re whizzing by at 60 mph in crazy suburbia Northern Virginia. So I had mixed feelings about that: I’m always in awe when I see them, but I hate seeing any animal near a road.

Back to OBNWR, though. I go there regularly, usually better camera-equipped. Other than the eagle, not much else was going on, although it was a gorgeous day. Mostly I just took landscapes, which was okay because I hadn’t really been there in the middle of winter before so it was a new perspective. My two micro 4/3 cameras (one is the infrared-converted one) were fine for that:

After two eagle sightings in one week, I was all hopped up for more raptor photography. A friend had given me a heads’ up on some places that are good for seeing hawks, so on the frigid day that was yesterday, I dragged Mark around two counties trying to get some hawk pictures. I saw nary a hawk. I DID see a Canadian snow goose flying upside down, however:

Apparently this maneuver is called whiffling and if is something they will sometimes do if they need to slow themselves down very quickly for a landing. I think it looks very silly!

After two parks and an exploratory drive, we’d seen zero hawks and we were freezing. We drove back home and parked in our driveway. I gathered my cameras and was hopping out of the Jeep when Mark said, “There is a huge bird sitting on the fence!” And there was a Cooper’s hawk, sitting 20 feet from my front door!

That was pretty amazing because I’ve never seen anything like that in our suburban yard. We get a lot of songbirds, doves, and corvids, but I’ve never seen a raptor. And I happened to have my camera IN MY HANDS! With the 400mm telephoto lens on it and everything! What are the chances?! AND I was dejected at the time because I’d failed to find any hawks after looking for them all day! (Moreover, just the day before I’d expressed jealousy when my mom said she saw a kestrel at her house.) I’m sure there’s some sort of moral here about what you’re looking for being right under your nose, although I hope Mark doesn’t think we’re just hanging out in the backyard next time I want him to go wildlife stalking with me…

Unfortunately, I have a feeling this hawk was menu planning on my fence – he was 10 feet from my bird feeding station and probably hoping for a snack of songbirds. This kind of upsets me because I want the birds I feed to feel safe. But at the same time, LOOK AT HIM! He’s awesome!

That’s it for now. Thank you for indulging me with this post. I promise I’m hardly ever going to make any mention of money for raccoons and I’ll keep posting pictures of them no matter what because people seem to like it. It’s just I’ve been tasked with trying to think of any source possible of animal lovers and it dawned on me that the audience of a vegan blog is probably a good source of animal lovers. Thank you for being really, really great readers whether or not you are able to donate. I have to tell you, I don’t really visit a lot of forums or anything like that because I get really depressed by the negative vibe of many of them, plus I’m very shy – bizarrely even more shy online than in real life – but everyone who comments here, and the writers of all the other vegan blogs I read, are so nice and supportive and wonderful; it restores my often-flagging faith in humanity and truly means a lot to me. I feel like I should be donating to you guys, not the opposite.

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Foul Mudammas and more

Mark and I have just returned from 5 days in Charleston, SC, where his family lives. You know you like your in-laws when visiting them is your idea. Mark’s uncle, Jeff, is an avid gardener who owns two properties, both of which sprout delicious vegetables year-round. My dream is to one day live close enough to Jeff that he’s able to garden on my property, giving me rights to forage a salad from his plants every day. Many of us pitched in at dinner time while we were there, but Jeff and Mark’s aunt Joyce were able to provide fresh lettuce and other veggies plucked fresh from their gardens. It’s things like that that tempt me to submit to their hints that we should move down there from horrid, freezing Northern Virginia!

Jeff is a big fan of Middle Eastern food and one night treated us to one of his favorite meals – one I’ve never had before – an Egyptian dish called foul mudammas (“foul” is pronounced “fool” and it’s far from foul). Per my request, he and Joyce shared a recipe they originally got from the internet and have been making frequently since then. Foul Mudammas is a peasant food: cheap, filling, delicious, often served as breakfast, and depending on how poor you are, possibly lunch and dinner. Although we had it for dinner, I can see its appeal as a savory breakfast, especially in the summer, its bright bite a lovely way to begin the day for those of us lacking the sweet tooth most American breakfasts appeal to. I think Jeff has made this dish so many times he operates on instinct now, but here is the original recipe he worked from.

Foul Mudammas

1 lb cooked fava beans (either canned or soaked and cooked dry beans)
1 lb cooked chick peas (either canned or soaked and cooked dry beans)
1 cucumber, diced
1/2 cup chopped tomato (about 1/2 can diced tomato)
1/2 cup lemon juice (about 2-3 lemons, squeezed)
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
2 large radishes, sliced
several cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 tsp salt
1/4-1 tsp cayenne pepper (the recipe given to me calls for 1 tsp, which seems like a lot to me…and I like things spicy)

Warm the cooked fava beans and chick peas, then transfer them to a large bowl. Add the lemon juice, garlic, and salt and mash together until about half of the beans are broken down and the rest are still whole. Add the remaining ingredients and combine well. Serve with pita bread.

We served this with pita, hummus, sliced cantaloupe, tossed salad, and Joyce’s crunchy, spicy black-eyed peas, which I should have demanded a recipe for as well. Scrumptious! Have I mentioned that Mark’s entire family happily eats vegan whenever we’re around? Sometimes I forget that’s probably actually unusual, but they are people who frequently eat vegetarian and vegan anyway, so I know we aren’t putting them out. Still, I love it and I know I’m lucky.

Mark’s mom never fails to find some new adventure for us to try while we are down there, with a heavy emphasis on nature, animals, and photo ops for my sake. Mark’s parents, aunt, uncle, and cousins moved to Charleston about six years ago, so it’s not like this is their hometown, but the more times we go down to visit, it’s probably getting harder and harder for my mother-in-law to find new places for us to go. I’d tell her not to worry so much about entertaining us except, well, I LOVE nature, animals, and photo ops. She outdid herself this time with Cypress Gardens, about 45 minutes north of the city of Charleston. Cypress Gardens has several attractions, including a lovely butterfly house that I loved, a very small aquarium which I hated (I do not like aquariums or zoos), and a black swamp which I loved, loved, loved. If you can get past the fact that there is an aquarium there, the swamp is TOTALLY worth the drive if you ever find yourself in the Charleston area.

There were plenty of butterflies fluttering around the butterfly house and perhaps I’ll share some pictures in a later post, but today, how about instead a butterfly-to-be?

In addition to butterflies and caterpillars, inside the butterfly house there were a few turtles, an ankle-biting duck, an observational bee hive (which would have upset me except the bees were free to leave through a dedicated bee exit to the outside), and few different birds including these pudgy quail:

They had to drag me out of the butterfly house, but only because I didn’t know how awesome the swamp was going to be. So, the swamp is black because the cypress trees leach tannins into the water. My mother saw my pictures and freaked out about the alligator (!!! yes!), but until then it hadn’t occurred to me that some people might not find a combination of alligators, vultures, and black water to be the greatest experience ever, but I was in heaven. Almost literally: I commented it was like being in a dream. We were fortunate to be there on the one really nice day (out of a couple very cold and one rainy day): sunshine and 60’s – very beautiful – but really almost any weather is going to give you a variety of awesome photos, beautiful for different reasons. I’m itching to go back on a foggy, misty day. There is a walking trail around the swamp, but what you want to do is take one of the paddle boats for either a self-guided (included in the admission price) or guided (for an extra fee) tour. We paddled at a leisurely rate (or rather, Mark and his mom paddled at a leisurely rate while I sat in the middle seat and rapturously snapped hundreds of pictures), and it took about an hour to complete the loop around the swamp.

The swamp pictures are best viewed in high-res, so the rest of the photos in this post are linked to big versions; just click on them for the full-size version.

The black water is almost mirror like, adding to the dream-like aura. We encountered only one other boat during our winter Presidents’ Day sojourn, so it was extremely serene. This is an accurate photo of what it looked like:

This photo has been color manipulated…because I finally found a RAW image editor for Linux I like so I celebrated with a pink sky.

I was totally focused on how amazing the trees and black water were, but when I managed to look up, I found VULTURES! This involved a few demands to stop the boat so I could take pictures and generally rhapsodize.

The water was very, very calm, with little visible life teeming around. I saw a turtle or two sunning itself, but the greatest part was when Mark claimed he saw an alligator. Now, there was a sign where you get into the boats saying there may be alligators, and a wishful-thinking Renae even boldly exclaimed, “I sure HOPE there are alligators!!” as she stepped into the boat, but neither his mother nor I believed wolf-crying Mark when he cried alligator. Except he DID see an alligator and soon we did too!! We paddled right by him!! How awesome is that??

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know what’s coming next: the infrared shots. Yes, the swamp, like a lot of South Carolina locations, lends itself very well to infrared photography. This one incorporates several elements: you can my mother-in-law’s paddle in the lower left, the super reflective water, and in the distance a couple of park benches framing the trail around the swamp.

Another infrared:

I chose to include this one because it shows one of the white arrows (on the tree in the middle; it’s hard to make out if you aren’t looking for it, but it’s the lighter-colored rectangle on the tree bark) that mark the route that you are supposed to row, although I then realized that if you look at the photo above this one, also on the middle-most tree, there is also a white arrow. Because the swamp is a complex and fragile ecosystem, you don’t have free reign to row willy-nilly throughout the swamp: you are to follow the unobstrusive arrows through a set path. Fortunately, it’s a long, meandering, very interesting route, although you do have to go under a couple of low-clearance bridges, which I found to be part of the charm.

This one really emphasizes the reflectiveness of the black water and the dream-like quality.

Who says I have to convert all my infrared pictures to B&W? How about blue to convey the winter season?

That’s all for tonight…I was going to show you a dog picture or two, but I think I’ll save those for next time.

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