Friday, May 17, 2013

The First Hummingbird

This morning I hung a hummingbird feeder on my porch. 
The house I bought is on the edge of a newer development in Ridgway, a small town, formerly a railroad stop and ranching community.  The original "True Grit" was filmed here.  But my house is just north of town where the trees are small, so I didn't expect to see much wildlife here because it is more open grassland.  Maybe some cattle in the distance. 

However every day has been a surprise.  To the west is a pasture with about 60 black yaks.  At night I see deer in the yard, on the road, in the fields.  During the winter about 40 elk fed and slept in the neighborhood.  A few weeks ago a fox crossed the fields, and I watched for several minutes from my balcony as it made its way up the hill.  Yesterday as I drove up to Elk Meadows, a cinnamon colored black bear ran up the road ahead of me, dove off the side and stopped.  I got out and we stared at each other for a minute. 

But, back to the birds.  All winter long bald eagles live along the Uncompaghre river close to the house.  I'd watch for them on my river walks, and the only other birds were ravens and magpies.  With the advent of spring bluebirds flocked in by the score.  There were small houses built for them along the roadside.  Then came the meadowlarks, robins, warblers, sparrows, and hawks.  My sterile- looking neighborhood was alive with birds. 

A few days ago I had coffee at with my good friend Angela at her home up the canyon.  Hummingbirds were at her feeder, and I remember from past years how many there were.  So, I decided to hang a feeder on my front porch, but I didn't have much hope that the birds would stop by.  Within minutes, I had several vying for a perch on the feeder, so I ran in and grabbed my camera.  Although I am my cat were sitting within ten feet of the feeder, they didn't seem to mind.  I brought out my coffee and cereal, sat down and enjoyed the show.

 It's good to have more than one feeder, because hummingbirds are very territorial.  They are solitary birds that keep a small territory and aggressively chase intruders out.  If a bird comes to the feeder it will drink for quite a while unless another bird comes along, dives down and chases it away.  Then the fleeing bird will return and pester the newer one and drive it away.  Some species are worse than others.  When the Rufus Hummingbirds come, they are the worst.  The little wars are very brutal.  I've seen them try to spear or grab each other with their bills, and they often smack right into each other hard. 

The females are as bad as the males, and are aggressive in keeping other birds away from their nests.  The males try to keep others away, so they can monopolize the female for breeding.  I was amazed at how many birds seemed to be attracted to the little feeder.  I put in 1 part cane sugar to 4 parts water, and no coloring.  This is the recommended concentration for hummingbirds.  Other chemicals and colorings are hard on their internal organs.   The birds seem to recognized it instantly and move right in.

While I was sitting on the porch, one bird tried to land on my red ball cap.  It does look somewhat like a red flower or the feeder, I guess.  I had just planted red geraniums around the yard, so the place is looking more enticing every day.

 Hovering above the feeder, the bird checks it out, then comes in to feed

The Black-chinned hummingbird is easy to identify.  
The black head & chin and white collar of the male are distinctive

So far I've seen the Black-chinned hummingbird, males and females, and the Broad-winged hummingbird.  The Broad-winged males have beautiful iridescent red chins and are sometimes mistaken for the Ruby-throated hummingbird.  With the rapid wingbeats, it's often hard to keep your eye on the bird, and it's gone in an instant.  The most common sound comes from the wingbeats, but they often make a little chirp as they battle their way at the feeder.

The birds are extremely intelligent and have the largest brain for their size of any bird.  Watching them, I've seen them observe each other, preen and spread oil from a gland in the rear over their feathers.  After feeding, they will fly up and clean their bills on the branches of the big tree in the front yard. Then they fly back for another drink of the sugar water.  

My next chore is to build a bird bath.  They love a fountain, sprinklers, and water in general.  The house came with a big ugly pile of sandstone boulders.  I've thought of pounding them to bits and hauling it all away, but I've decided to keep them and turn them into a home for creeping plants, moss, and a fountain.  It will be a nice summer project, and I can add some pools, other rocks, and parts to make it beautiful.  Now I've got to find a little electric pump, some cement, and a bit of imagination.  It's amazing how much work these tiny hummingbirds are going to cause me.

Hiking Rancho La Laguna

My last full day in Santa Barbara, and Nori had arranged for us to go on a hike with her hiking club, a wonderful group of friends whom she wanted me to meet.  Steven Sharpe, General Director of Opera Santa Barbara had organized the outing and arranged for us to meet downtown at 6:45 and carpool up to the ranch for the hike.
Looking back down the trail on the Preserve
Rancho La Laguna, nowdays called the Sedgwick ranch for the previous owner, sits in a valley northeast of the little town of Los Olivos, and abuts Michael Jackson's "Neverland" ranch.  The property dates from a land grant from the mid-1800's before California was a state.  However, today it is a research facility for the University of California, Santa Barbara.  Duke Sedgwick willed the property to the university on his death.  Fairly large at 6,000 acres, it is full of deer, bear, coyotes, and mountain lions.  The country driving in was dry and brown, but as we ascended the canyons, pines, junipers, and other trees greened up the scenery.  Living in the sub-Arctic most of my life, I don't relish hot days, and as the thermometer climbed to 97 F., I wondered what I'd gotten myself into.

We met our guide for the day, Kate McCurdy, director of the UCSB Sedgwick Reserve in Santa Ynez. I might not have been the oldest hiker in the group, but most weren't kids, so I thought I'd be in good company.  Steven was full of energy, made introductions, and herded us to the start, a dirt road through dry June grass, the stuff that sticks in you shoes and socks.  We walked single file uphill, dripping sweat and chatting.  Most of the folks were in fine shape and kept the pace brisk. 
Heading uphill
I honed in on Kate to see what kind of research was done there, so I hustled to the front of the line.  Surprise, Kate had been a National Park Service researcher in Glacier National Park, Yosemite, and Santa Monica Mountains.  She talked about her grizzly bear research in Glacier, and I remembered attending a conference where Kate Kendall, presented the results of their research on grizzly DNA.  She pointed out the great fault dividing the rocks and soil types: the Paso Robles alluvium and serpentine rocks from the Franciscan formation.  The vegetation uphill from the fault are composed of native species, because the soil in not as hospitable to the invasive species, so the geology is often studied at the preserve.  Kate and I reminisced about our days in the National Park Service, mutual friends, and the research at the preserve.  But, I felt I was monopolizing her brief time with the group, so I dropped back to sweat with the rest of the gang.
Kate educates the group
I had thought we would be taking a leisurely walk with educational talks, so I brought heavy binoculars for birding, and my SLR camera...and a bottle of water.  The gear hang heavily around my neck, so after taking a few photos of the group I put it in my pack so I could hike at a brisk pace.  

 Nori tops out on the grassy hillside
We had gone a couple of miles through the forest and canyon, finally emerging on a grass-covered ridge overlooking the ranch.  The trail had disappeared, so our feet scuffed through the grass picking up prickers and chaff.  At the top an outcropping of rock gave a great view of the area.  I thought of the coyotes that scouted from here while digesting dinner.  Ravens were the only birds out in this heat.
Nori and I stand on top of the rock overlooking the ranch
Down, down, down the steep slope to the canyon.  At the forks near our cars some of the group who had prior engagements split off, but we followed Kate for a few more miles back up another canyon, over a divide, and through more canyons and forests before returning the the cars.  

The gang had planned a potluck lunch, and I stuffed myself more than usual sampling every dish.  I sat next to Dr. Peter Nickel and his wife Carrie Garner who had invited us to dinner the previous week.  It's a small world: he knew my friend Dr. Debbie Wheeler, an anesthesiologist living here in Ridgway and a ski partner for the past several years.  They had worked together in Denver years before.  

Sitting under the 400-year old oak tree I thought of what this country might have looked like a couple of hundred years before when the Chumash natives lived here and the trees were larger, the vegetation all native, and very few people.  Tomorrow we would drive through L.A. and deposit me at the airport.  It is truly another world out there.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Biking & Wine

There are hundreds of fine bicycle tours through California wine country.  Some are organized; some, like ours are spur of the moment, seat of the pants tours.  Nori suggested riding the roads from Solvang to Los Olivos, so we squeezed our bikes into the back of her Volvo and headed up Hwy 154 from Santa Barbara to Solvang.  The coastal ecology changed radically as we powered up the curves out of Santa Barbara.  Looking back on the red tile roofs, whitewashed adobe, and misty ocean, I noticed how quickly the climate and vegetation changed to the tinder-dry grass and shrubs of the inland.  I remembered reading E.O. Wilson's "Biodiversity".  He told that the most threatened ecosystems in the world were those along the California coastline.  Almost every plant is an exotic brought from Africa, Asia, and beyond. The local plants are almost all gone.

It was a chilly 54 degrees, so we walked around the little Danish-motif town like tourists, peering into a dozen stores: pastries, bamboo clothing, antiques, restaurants...  I'd lived in resort towns and national parks most of my life, so it seemed a bit too much for me, but fun for a tourist.

Once on the bikes we pedaled up towards Los Olivos into the heart of the wine country. 

Or should I say, wine tasting country.  Every driveway we passed advertised wine tasting.  Once in the little town we tied our bikes to a sign and walked the streets.  Almost every store, home, or building had been converted into a wine-tasting bar. 

Nori strolls by the Byron tasting room

A well-fed calico cat soaks up the sun in the window
We popped our heads in several small shops but decided riding a bike on the highway while tipsy might not be the best idea.  However we noticed a number of gold medals hanging on one shop, so we decided to do a 3-wine tasting at Daniel Gehrs.  The proprietor poured three whites: The Chardonnay was delicious, and as I sipped the drops, the fellow explained that Mr. Gehrs ferments the grapes in stainless steel vats, not in oak barrels, so the taste is clean and bright.  Thinking back on my beloved Bordeaux wines, I'm probably a romantic who cherishes the subtle flavors of the oak.  Wine should have heart and soul, a bit of magic, so the chemically pure taste seemed to be missing something.  He described the Chenin Blanc as "buttery", and I agreed.  It swirled in my mouth not unlike a fine olive oil.  We learned that Gehrs does not own any vineyards but buys the grapes and makes boutique wines.  Not sure what to make of this, I lifted the Riesling to my lips.  Much sweeter, like the German wines I love.  If I want a Riesling, I always buy the German ones, but this gave me a very sharp, clean vision of a fine wine.  We left the shop after about an ounce of wine and didn't feel a thing.  Perfect!

On around the block to a little nursery and yard ornament shop, full of Buddhas, ferns, flowers, vases, and odd stuff that I'd be unlikely to find anywhere else.  The over-stuffed clutter gave me some ideas for landscaping my new yard. 

Right now it's mostly mud and weeds, no lawn, no grass, and a pile of sandstone rocks the builder left in the front yard.  I've been thinking of making them into a fountain for the birds.  However, I couldn't see a contemplating Buddha staring up my walk.

We took off out of town on the bikes, rode on some backroads, then down into Solvang.  I had originally thought of the bike ride as physical exercise, but up till now it had been a cultural experience.  With the breeze on my face and my leg muscles pumping, it felt good to be back on the bike and exercising.  I thought ahead to home and getting on my bike again now that spring had come to the Rockies.

Nori suggested we have lunch at the "Cold Spring Tavern", an old stage coach stop near the top of the pass.  She promised a beer, fine food, and another cultural experience.  Since 1865 The Cold Spring Tavern has been serving travelers over San Marcos pass.  It was on a little side road, originally the main road from Santa Barbara to the high country.  Huge trees shaded the tavern.  A busload of tourists stopped just as we did, so we sprinted for the door.  Just in time, since it closed at 3pm. 

One waitress did everything, and we were impressed at her efficiency.  She brought us a pile of home-made onion rings that Nori had recommended; then Nori ordered the salad, I opted for the hamburger and a pint of Hoppy Poppy IPA. 
By now we were the only people in the tavern, so I looked around a bit and took a few photos of the dusty old fireplace and memorabilia on the walls.

I managed to force down the entire burger, the large IPA, the onion rings, and a potato salad along with Nori's bread.  I waddled to the car and lapsed into a food coma as Nori drove down the hill to home. So much for a day of exercise on the bike.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Daphne Visits Santa Barbara

Nori has a beautiful home in Santa Barbara where she spends the "Mud Months in the spring and fall each year.  I had been invited to visit, and when I mentioned it to my daughter Daphne, she said she would be in Los Angeles the previous few days and we could meet, drive up to Santa Barbara, and spend a few days together with Nori.

The Hungry Cat is famous for seafood, a little gem tucked into the wall at Sunset and Vine in Hollywood.  Daphne had discovered it online and recommended we meet there.  I took a cab from LAX, a ride that cost me more than my plane ticket from Grand Junction to Los Angeles...what a surprise.  My heart raced when I saw Daphne approach; we hugged and immediately got to the gossip of the past month, the cuisine, her seminar at Agape, and life on the East Coast.  For a woman born and raised in a log cabin in Alaska and an Inupiat village in the Arctic, she has transitioned into the culture, music, and arts, and theater.

We started off with fresh oysters on the half-shell with three sauces.  Daphne had a salad, I some decadent fish dish.  It's hard to remember, since I was so delighted to see her again.  I live in Ridgway, Colorado, many miles from Jersey City & Manhattan.  But it's closer than I used to be: 32 years in Alaska.
Daphne and I with the Hollywood stars in the sidewalk

Then we were off up the coast to Santa Barbara in Daph's rental Jeep Liberty.  Nori had suggested taking Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, for it's scenic beauty.  I hadn't seen this many people in a few years, and I compared it to my quiet rustic life in Alaska and the San Juan mountains of Colorado.  Still, the journey was about 2 hours as we drove into Nori's yard.

Daphne and Nori had never met, so it was a nice opportunity for them to get acquainted.  Nori's son Andrew came for dinner.  At Daphne's same age, the two blonds spent the evening talking while Nori made a slow baked salmon.  I cooked creme brulee, but poured the boiling water on my foot in an accident as I removed the pan from the oven, howled and tore off my shoe, but not before suffering four 2nd degree burns to the top of my foot, limiting my activities for the next couple of weeks. We seemed to talk the night away, not caring about the hour.

Next morning we drove to the old Santa Barbara mission and it's rose garden.  The mission was founded in 1786 by the Franciscan padre Junipero Serra, reconstructed many times after fires and earthquakes.  The present structure, the fourth dates from 1820, reinforced in 1927.  But we were after the roses.  Daphne had bought me a camera for my birthday, perhaps the nicest present I've ever received, so I was on a mission to photograph. 

Nori drove us down town to the harbor for a walk.  It was lunch time, so we stopped at Brophy Brothers for a snack that turned into an early dinner: I had  huge pile of batter-fried calamari, Daphne and Nori had salads overflowing with shrimp, avocados, and other delicacies of the area

We wandered the streets, looking for sunglasses, clothes, gear, and books.  Chaucer's Books, one of the last beautiful independent book stores anywhere is always on our agenda.  Daphne loved it and loaded up on poetry of Hafiz.  I found the current issue of the Paris Review, a magazine I've devoured for years.  Harold L. Humes, Peter Matthiessen, and George Plimpton started the magazine in 1953 in Paris; Plimpton remained the editor for 50 years.  Now Lorin Stein, a proud Johns Hopkins grad, is the editor.  I treasure every issue.
Dinner.  I must sound like a "foodie" with all the emphasis on eating.  But that's what we, and eat, and eat.  We met Andrew downtown and wandered to Jane's for a dinner we didn't need, but wanted badly.  Here Daphne dives into her roasted duck.
Tuesday we shopped again, looking in every bike shop.  Yesterday was sunglasses; today was bicycles.  My son Thor and daughter-in-law Sarah are heavy into the mountain bike racing scene.  Thor had thumped his head trying to loosen an inset 32mm nut, so I went on a quest for the perfect tool.  Not to be found, so I'll make one when I return to Ridgway and my shop.  On the way, Daphne found a fine cruiser/commuter bike:
     More eating: El Cielito, for an early dinner before Daphne had to leave.  They were closed after lunch, and we were late; too early for dinner, but they still had great tapas at the bar.

On full bellies we wandered through the farmers' market on State Street, two blocks of flowers and food from local farms and gardens.  I came away with a baguette and a dozen farm eggs; Nori got veggies and flowers.
Loot from the farmers' market

It was time to start winding down.  Daphne had been with us for three rewarding days.  What a treat for a dad!  She still had the two-hour drive back to LA, so we waved her good-bye as she pulled out of the driveway to continue life's merry ride.