Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Suet Cakes - The Real McCoy

I've been making "suet" cakes for the birds for almost four years. The recipe consists of quick oats, cornmeal, flour and sugar combined with melted lard and peanut butter. The birds love it (as do the squirrels, of course.) The cakes attract woodpeckers, chickadees, jays, titmice, wrens, black birds, and I've even heard of cardinals and thrashers eating it. It's particular good to have around in the winter as a good source of fat to help the birds through cold periods and when other natural food sources aren't readily available.

I put "suet" in quotations because obviously there is no suet in the recipe. True suet cakes would be made with rendered beef suet (fat), but how many of you know of a grocery store that has beef suet in the meat case? It probably wouldn't be a big seller. So lard has become the standard substitute. I hear that even lard is hard to find in some areas of the country. [When did real pie crusts lose favor to those found in the freezer section?]

But my grocery store fortunately does carry lard. At least they always have. I went in to pick up a package tonight and it was no where to be found. I talked to the butcher in the meat department (where I always find it) and he said they changed suppliers and the new company doesn't carry it.

I'm thinking, this isn't good, what to do now, when I thought of beef suet. So I asked him if they had any in the back. He says that as they trim the meat, they toss it in the garbage, but he would go back and check. Sure enough, he had about 3/4 of a pound which would be enough for me.

This is when I had to shake my head and laugh. He brings it out to me in a package with a price tag on it ..... $0.69 a pound or $0.49 total. His logic was that it was half the price of what I would have paid for the lard, so he was giving me a deal for the inconvenience. And I'm thinking, "you're charging me for your garbage?" Does that make any sense? But I graciously accepted it and thanked him.

So I made REAL suet cakes for the first time and it was so easy to render the fat. If they look to be a hit with the birds, I will go back to the grocery store and negotiate a reasonable price to pay for the butcher's garbage.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Another Eurasian Tree Sparrow Chaser

I submitted the "Distinguished Visitor" post and the next night, there's another birder contacting me, hoping to see the Eurasian Tree Sparrow at my house. Phil was coming into St. Louis from Michigan for his college roommate's wedding and had some time to search for the ETS. That's so cool, so I told him he was more than welcome to park at my kitchen table for while.

Phil was here for about 30 minutes in the early afternoon during the "prime" ETS period. I had a really good feeling that he would see the bird because there was one at the feeder just as he pulled into my driveway. But it didn't happen.

Sounds like it was a fantastic wedding celebration as he had a couple of hours to kill between the first reception and the second reception so I told him to come back over. We watched, scanned, and talked for a while, but I had a bad feeling about it. I'd never seen the ETS this late in the day so I suggested we take a quick drive over to Creve Coeur Lake/Park where they are known to hang out.

We scoured a couple of places with no luck and then finally came upon a field where there were hundreds (if not thousands?) of sparrows. Every minute or so they would rise out of the field en masse. It was an awesome experience. Phil, as an experienced birder, must have been laughing at me because I have never seen such a sight. I think I giggled a couple of times.

But after watching for a while, the flock was obviously weighted heavily toward the House Sparrow. There were also some American Tree Sparrows, and I'm pretty sure others I couldn't identify, but definitely no ETSs. I guess my appointment as Eurasian Tree Sparrow Ambassador of St. Louis will be delayed until my track record improves!

I really wanted Phil to see the ETS, but birds are finicky. There are no guarantees. But if it is any consolation to Phil, his visit made my weekend. He may not be a big time government official, a financial wizard, or the director of a nature conservancy, but he is a VIP in my books. I learned a lot from him, such as:
  • Listen carefully to the sounds around you. Even if it is a mile away, you may still hear the bird calling. Birding is more than a visual experience.
  • Look closely. Phil saw so many birds in a tree right in front of me that I missed. Next time I look through my bins, I will take my time. I might even do a better job of keeping the lenses clean!
  • Know the habitat of the bird you are seeking. Know what it eats. Quit searching blindly. And when the much more experienced birder tells me that "maybe we should stop here" I will listen.
  • If you see an unfamiliar sparrow, quickly consider that it might be a female house sparrow. Otherwise, you might waste a lot of time. (This would be funny if you had been there. I just needed to put it in writing because his stories made me laugh.)
  • And beyond lessons learned, Phil helped me identify Bird #102 on my life list. I saw a warbler in the trees, pointed it out to him, and he knew exactly what it was: Black-throated Green Warbler!
If you're ever in search of the ETS, drop me a line. There are no guarantees, but I'll do what I can.

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Distinguished Visitor

I'm not a big time birder. I don't go chasing zooties. I don't start a new list every year. I am very content to watch the birds in my backyard and see a few others here and there when convenient. I'm pleased that my life list has surpassed the 100 mark.

Nevertheless, I do follow the Missouri Bird List-Serve just to hear what birds are out there, to keep apprised of migration patterns, to learn more about birds, and to live vicariously through reading the adventures of the many experienced birders in Missouri.

Yesterday morning a request was posted on the list-serve. A gentleman from Canada would be in St Louis Thursday and Friday and he wanted to see a Eurasian Tree Sparrow (ETS). The ETS was introduced to St Louis in the late 1800's by European migrants. Unlike other introduced species, specifically the House Sparrow and European Starling, they bred here but never expanded very far out of the St Louis area. So any birder looking to add the ETS to their life list must visit St Louis.

Well, I have about a half dozen European Tree Sparrows everyday at my feeder during the lunch hour. I thought there would be a number of experienced birders offer to show him the bird, but what the heck, I'll offer an invitation myself. So I emailed him with the time I see the bird and a general idea of where I live. If that would be convenient, please email or phone me. It wasn't an hour later that the gentleman, Jim Coutts, called me. Thursday (today) he had a meeting until about noon but then he could have his driver bring him to my house at 12:30. Perfect, we had it arranged.

DRIVER???? Who is this Jim Coutts? Well of course I'm off to Google right away. Wikipedia has an entry on him. To summarize, Mr. Coutts was the top advisor (Principal Secretary) to Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau from 1975 to 1981. Previously he had been an advisor to PM Lester Pearson. After he left politics, he was the founder, President and CEO of an investment capital firm. Other web entries pertaining to Mr. Coutts show that he is currently on the Board of Directors of the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

OMG, this powerful man will be visiting my modest home to look at a bird. The pressure is on. I get home that night and clean the main rooms, mop floors, and meticulously clean the sliding glass doors that open to the patio and bird feeders. Don't need any cat paw prints to diminish the view!

The next morning at work he calls me for assurance that the ETS is still around. Yes, I saw them yesterday. So he confirmed that he would be at my house at 12:30. He arrives in a tasteful limousine and the impeccably dressed driver opens the doors for Jim and his colleague Debbie Casey. I invite them in and since there are no birds at the feeder, we take a step outside for a quick look around the area with our binoculars to see if any are in view. No, so I suggest we sit in the kitchen and wait. The ETS is a somewhat timid bird and won't come around humans.

So we're sitting at my kitchen table (in my modest home) making chit chat. I tell Jim & Debbie that the usual routine is that I walk into the kitchen and my reflection shoos the birds away. After 5 or 10 minutes they start to come back to the feeders: first the House Finches, then the Cardinals and MODOs, perhaps a Chickadee or two, and eventually the Eurasian Tree Sparrows are starting to feel less threatened and they return.

"Chit Chat, Chit Chat" for five minutes. No birds at all. Ten more minutes of small talk, no birds. I'm getting very nervous. I swore to him that the ETS is a regular at my feeders! Terrible thoughts go through my head. Maybe the squirrels are being aggressive and keeping the birds away. Maybe there's a hawk out there looking for lunch. Did the neighbor finally decide to fill his feeders and the birds went there? Dang! Where are the birds?

So I tell Jim & Debbie that I'm going to check out the view from different windows in the house; keep looking from the kitchen. And as I'm in a back room, I hear them get excited about a bird at the feeder. I come back in for a look ... it's a House Finch. But that's a good sign. At least a bird is at the feeders.

Sure enough, the finches start coming in one by one. The Mourning Doves arrive. A chickadee. And FINALLY, the Eurasian Tree Sparrow!

[Inaudible] sigh of relief from me! And over the next 15 minutes or so, more and more ETS's arrived. They are a flighty little bird and don't stay very long at a time, but Jim insisted that he got at least one good photograph of an ETS. I do hope that is true.

Here's a picture of the target bird that I took a couple of years ago.

And for the gentleman Jim Coutts, the ETS was Bird #713 to check off on the ABA (American Birding Association) checklist. That is an awesome accomplishment that very few attain. I may be a novice/backyard birdwatcher, but I do know it is an achievement to be proud of. And I'm honored to have played a small part.

Congratulations, Jim.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Family Reunion 2009

I feel fortunate to have a very close family, not only my immediate family, but my extended family including cousins and their children and their children's children. Wow, as much as I love to see the young ones, it reminds me that I'm no longer the young 'un!

This weekend was the annual reunion for my Dad's side of the family. My grandparents Leo & Rudina Klarer (long deceased) had 8 children and only one still survives, my Aunt Rita. And there are two daughters-in-law from that generation: my Mom and my Uncle Bill's wife, Rita. Grandchildren total 22. Great-grandchildren 36. Great Great Grandchildren (to date) 8. Not counting spouses, that's a total of 69? And the attendance at the Reunion was close to 60. Not a bad showing.

I feel horrible that I only took a couple pictures. Here's the best of the day (I'm embarrassed!)

But what can I say? As Lyle Lovett writes in his song "Family Reserve":

So mama don't you make such a stir
Just put down that camera
And come on and join up
The last of the family reserve

And that's what I did. Put down the camera and spent the whole day enjoying my family. And I have one of the best!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

It was a Red-Bellied Woodpecker!

I was back to work today feeling marginally better, but since I wasn't contagious, there was no way I could stay out another day. I did make it home for lunch and once again heard the familiar call of the Red-Belly that did it's best to stay out of view.

I was walking out the door to return to the office, looked at the feeders on the patio, and lo & behold, there he was on the platform. Looks to be a juvenile male. He stuck around and I was able to get this half-way decent photograph. Then he flew off for a brief tiff with a Downy Woodpecker on the telephone pole before he went on his merry way.

Hopefully this is a good sign for a very birdy 2009-10 Project FeederWatch (start date 11/14/09).

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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Sick Day

Sure-fire way to get in to see your doctor that day .... tell them you have flu-like symptoms. Almost guaranteed to work with the H1N1 scare going around. I've been sick since Sunday and started worrying that maybe I did have the flu and heaven forbid it would be the swine-flu. My entire family was in town last weekend so I called around to make sure no one else was sick and happily no one was.

I called in sick to work this morning and made an appointment with the doctor. Luckily it wasn't the flu, but some sort of bronchial infection or something. All I know is that I'm on meds and should be feeling better soon.

There is an upside to being sick. I got to watch the birds at the feeders today, although I spent most of the day at the doctors, pharmacy or sleeping.

I was pleasantly surprised by the number of birds. There was a constant stream of House Finches, Cardinals, a pair of Carolina Chickadees, a number of Mourning Doves, about 15 Grackles, and half a dozen Eurasian Tree Sparrows (a refined house sparrow that was introduced to St Louis a 100 years ago.) I also saw out and about a pair of Flickers, a pair of Downy Woodpeckers, a few Starlings, and a Blue Jay.

I know I heard a Red-Bellied Woodpecker, but it never came into view.

All in all a good day despite being sick. I didn't take many pictures, but here are a couple.

House Finch

Carolina Chickadee

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