Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Hermit Thrush in the Garden

Yes, it's another post about birds on my gardening blog. This is slightly related to gardening, however, because I saw this cool bird in the University's Horticulture Display and Trial Garden. A couple mornings a week I like to sit on the bench by the water feature, drink my tea and watch whatever birds happen to be around. They like the water feature, so it's a great place to spot things.

Yesterday morning seemed really quiet, with not many birds flying around in the crabapple trees like normal. But as I was about to leave early, a bird slightly smaller than a robin fly right by me into the brush next to the bench. It hopped out the other side and into another bush where I could get a picture of it. It seemed to look at me, wondering why there was a giant creature sitting by it's water source. It was also bobbing it's tail up and down the whole time.

I had a vague notion that it was a thrush of some sort, based off of it's similarities to a robin in size, reddish tail, and in the white eye-ring it had. I pulled up the Cornell site on my phone and decided that Hermit Thrush fit my bird just right. 

Note the reddish tail.

In the meantime, the real bird had decided I wasn't too much of a threat and had hopped over to the small pond to get a drink. After, he rooted around in the leaf litter under a shrub for a while, looking for food.

Success! A tasty morsel for breakfast.

I was sad I had to leave to make it to my class on time and couldn't stay to watch this neat bird, but the fact that a quiet morning had turned into a life bird for me.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Duluth Adventure

To celebrate three years of being in a relationship, my boyfriend, Michael, and I took a day trip up to the lovely city of Duluth, situated on the shore of Lake Superior. It was my first time visiting the city, but my boyfriend had a small amount of prior knowledge, having visited several times with his family. Despite this, he still hadn't been there for several years so I had to do a little bit of research into where we should go and what we should do. I knew right away I wanted to go up to Hawk Ridge to try to see some of the spectacular views of the raptor migration they get there, and Michael wanted to visit Gooseberry Falls and Canal Park, places he and his family had been several times before.

With these ideas in mind, we set off on the two and a half hour drive to Duluth yesterday morning, excited that the day promised more beautiful weather than we could've wished for. Sunny and mid-60s, the day was starting off good before we even got there.

Upon our arrival around lunchtime, Michael suggested we get sandwiches from a place he'd been during past visits, Sir Benedict's, so we enjoyed some hearty French Dip sandwiches before heading up the hill to Hawk Ridge.

We hit the dirt road on the way up the ridge and knew we'd found the right spot when we saw the cars lined up along the road. Unintentionally, we got there during the times recommended on the signs posted at the ridge for the best viewing times. This time of year is also best for seeing larger raptors migrating, as the smaller species had mostly made their way through the area earlier in the fall. I had brought along my own binoculars and Michael picked up a pair from the Hawk Ridge station where they had loaner pairs for those who needed them. We already had seen several Sharp-shinned Hawks fly over us as we got there, a smaller species that was having a harder time battling that day's winds out of the south. Michael is not as into birding as I am, so I was hoping we'd see some larger bald eagles and red-tailed hawks to catch his interest. I knew that we were in range for Golden Eagle migration, a species I had never seen in the wild before, but wasn't expecting to see them at all that day. They weren't as common as the other species, so I didn't want to get my hopes up. 

But boy was I wrong. About 30 minutes after we got there, one of the birders taking the official counts from the platform up on the ridge said "Looks like we've got some Goldens coming in from the lake." My heart started racing as I eagerly scanned the area they indicated. I could see several specks waaaaay far out that I could tell were soaring birds, but not much more than that. Were these the Golden Eagles? I couldn't tell for sure yet. But luckily for me, Michael and the other 20 or so birders up on the ridge, one of the adults was going to give us a spectacular flyby not long later. In he (or she? I never actually heard if they knew the sex or not) came, soaring around and around and finally flying the length of the ridge right along where all of the birders stood in awe. It was beautiful. Huge, with a golden head, almost like a mane of feathers. The second that came in decent range of us still stayed off in the distance over the treeline. This one was a juvenile, with prominent white spots under his wings and a white band on his tail. We even got to see this one in comparison to a juvenile bald eagle that came into the same viewing range. 

Not a great photo, but here's one of the Golden Eagles!

Besides the Golden Eagles, we saw lots of Sharp-Shinned Hawks, several Bald Eagles, several Red-Tailed Hawks and one Northern Harrier. And this is just in the hour-fourty five minutes we spent there! Michael was thoroughly impressed with the Golden Eagles and the other raptors we saw (he kept bringing up how cool it was throughout the rest of the day), and I was happy he'd had such a good time birding. It was also really great that the nature guides up at Hawk Ridge gave a running commentary on what was flying over and information on the species we were seeing. It was both helpful and educational.

After Hawk Ridge, we drove down to the highway out of Duluth, still basking in the glow of our Golden Eagle sightings, and headed the 45 minutes to Gooseberry State Park. This was another place Michael had been before with his family, so he knew generally where to go once we got there. We spent an hour climbing and walking around on the rocks near the falls and taking pictures. The leaves were almost completely off the trees except for a few smaller maples that were still clinging to their fall colors. But the trees in this area were primarily evergreens and birch that had shed their leaves already. It made for a really neat scene with the birches starkly standing out against the other colors of a fall landscape.

Heading back to Duluth, we decided to head over to Canal Park to look at the lift bridge, walk out along the wall of the channel the large boats go through to get to the bay and just generally poke around. The lighthouses by the canal stuck out enough into the bay to get some really nice views of downtown Duluth. The bridge itself is also pretty neat, with a center section that doesn't split apart and lift like other lift bridges, but complete lifts up to the top as one section. In my pictures it's down because there were no boats going through at the time.

We had some time to kill before dinner, so we headed to a brewery situated right on the boardwalk area. Canal Park Brewing Co. had a large selection of craft brews and, thankfully, another couple who had been there before and arrived around the same time as us, offered their recommendations on which ones to try. Nuthatchet Brown turned out to be our favorite, and the others I sampled were good as well. I'm not a huge beer person and I still liked everything I tried. The day was so mild that we could still sit outside on their patio area comfortably at 5pm in the evening. There was only a slight, southerly breeze so the temperature was incredibly pleasant. Turned out they also serve food as well as beer, although we were planning on dining somewhere else that evening, but I'd like to try their food another time. It's definitely a place we'll be visiting again on return trips to Duluth.

We left to walk up the boardwalk to the restaurant we'd chosen for dinner just as the sun was setting, which turned the sky pink and gold.

Just up the boardwalk a ways was Fitger's the restaurant that we ate dinner at. Fitger's is a huge complex of stores, a hotel and restaurants, but we ate at their main restaurant. They also brew beer here so Michael tried one of their brews as well. The food was delicious (I had the Friday fish & chips special while Michael had one of their burgers) and I probably over-ate, but we left to walk back down the boardwalk to the car content. We even got to see the lit-up lift bridge in action as one of the large ore boats went through the canal. It's amazing how someone could pilot a boat that huge through such a small channel. Once it was through it honked it's massive horn, which echoed off the city. Since Duluth is basically situated on the side of a huge hill, it was a pretty impressive echo.

It's cliche, but the day was pretty much perfect. I can't think of a single thing that could have been better. We both had so much fun, the weather was amazing, all the food we ate was great and all the outdoor experiences we had were awesome. I'm definitely excited for the next opportunity I have to go back.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Farm Internship Reflections

It definitely crept up on me, but Monday was my last day out on the Cornercopia Student Organic Farm as an intern. It was definitely a bittersweet day because I'm really going to miss working there. I have learned so much and I'm so thankful I was given the opportunity to work their this growing season.

Panoramic view of a storm rolling away from the farm.

There have been so many parts about this internship that I have loved, it's hard to list all of them. I really enjoyed working with the other interns, many of which come from different majors and backgrounds. It made the job interesting when I got to hear about the different perspectives on food and farming that everyone had. My boss has been incredible in teaching me a lot about what it takes to run a farm. She also was super understanding when I and the other interns would goof up on something (like putting tomatoes in the cold cooler or picking the wrong leafy green vegetable) which made our mistakes much more of a learning opportunity than something to be ashamed of. I have learned so much from her and I really hope that, eventually, I will know as much about plants, organic farming and organic food as she does.

All of us goofy interns and our boss, Courtney.

But more than anything I have learned the importance of food and the importance of appreciating where our food comes from. I can eat a tomato any day I want and not even think about it, but after seeding, planting, weeding, and harvesting the tomatoes I ate this summer, something about the fruit just tastes different and better. Maybe it's the emotional connection to the food, maybe it's simply because it's organic, but knowing more about your food definitely makes it more special.

Tomato picking party!

I now also hugely appreciate those that work with food as their profession who make it a point to use local and organic food. University Dining Service chefs and the chef at our on-campus restaurant Campus Club, have been huge supporters of the student organic farm and buy large amounts of our produce to feed to their customers. I specifically remember hearing from the head chef at Campus Club who talked about how a carrot soup she makes just doesn't taste the same unless the carrots she uses are organic. The flavor just isn't there with conventional carrots. I'm also very glad that we are a produce source for the food eaten by students on our campus. As the University of Minnesota works toward a more sustainable future, I think that food has a huge role to play in that shift. I'm hoping that buying produce from us is just the beginning of the U starting to source it's food more locally.

Coupon for lunch provided by University Dining Services.

And, of course, I have learned that food certainly creates community, whether that be here at the University or with other groups in Twin Cities area. Seeing how good food makes people happy was another thing I loved about this job. I hope that I can contribute to these food communities and continue connecting people to good food even more in the future with the knowledge that I gained at Cornercopia. 


Monday, October 6, 2014

Fall Colors and a Harvest Feast

Fall really started suddenly here. Probably because we had a strange warm spell a week ago when it was near 80 degrees outside and it felt like summer. But the temperatures have plummeted and now we're seeing the normal 40s-50s and even had our first frost advisory this weekend. The colors have been lovely, especially on some of the early changing trees like the Kentucky Coffee trees by TCF Bank Stadium. They really did a good job with landscaping around such a huge structure, don't you think. They definitely knew what they were doing when they planted trees that would turn one of our school colors (gold) in fall during football season.

Out at the farm we're seeing lots of fall wildflowers popping up in the perennial area. Mainly asters this week were displaying some lovely purple and ethereal-looking whites. 

We had to bundle up some of the crops for the potential frost that was going to hit this weekend. Below you'll see a picture of some of the covered rows of ground cherries. That white fabric was definitely difficult to put on in the 30mph winds we had that day.

Because of the potential frost, we also had to harvest as much as we could before the frost got to it. We went all out on what's left of the tomato patch, got the remaining winter squash in and scavenged for anything else that was left.
In my personal plot, I harvested out as much as I could. I came home with quite the bounty. My zuchetta plant was still going strong, so I picked whatever was there, small or large. Tomato yields were pretty good as well. My favorite variety for the year was Sunset Bumblebee. I'll probably do a seed saving post on those later. Otherwise, my basil plants have had good yields, but I only got one orange pepper for the whole year. Had some volunteer tomatillos in my plot as well.

Once I laid out all the produce I knew I was going to have to do something with them now or else risk letting them sit around in the kitchen where I would procrastinate on using them only to have them go bad.
Luckily I had just ran out of my preserved basil the week before, so I put another round of basil and olive oil into the empty ice cube tray and stuck that in the freezer. This is probably my favorite way to preserve herbs because they're easy to pop out and use whenever you need them. I also use a lot of olive oil in dishes, so this method is perfect for me. Preserving in the ice cube tray is also nice because usually one cube is just enough for sauteing in the size pan that I own.

With the tomatoes and some of the basil, I whipped up my favorite One-Pot-Pasta recipe. This is a great, fast meal because everything happens in the same pot so you don't have to worry about watching different things. You can make this in several easy steps:

One Pot Pasta
Step 1) Start to cook the amount of pasta you need for the number of people you're serving.
Step 2) While the pasta is cooking, cut your tomatoes into small, bite size pieces. I usually use cherry tomatoes that I halve and quarter.
Step 3) When your pasta is almost done, strain off a large amount of the cooking water, leaving a little still in the bottom of the pan. You need this for the base of the sauce.
Step 4) Add the tomatoes (and onions, garlic, basil, whatever else you like in sauce) and cover the pan.
Step 5) Cook until added ingredients are soft and have incorporated somewhat into the the water.
Step 6) Cool and enjoy!

I had several zuchetta squash that had broken ends and needed to be used straight away, so I sliced them into thin rounds, threw them in a pan with some olive oil and sauteed them until soft. Once they were soft, I lowered the heat as low as possible and covered them with shredded cheese and some garlic salt. When the cheese had melted, I served them as a side to my pasta dish. They were pretty delicious. The picture below is a bit blurry, but you get the general idea.

Overall, it was a lovely fall harvest feast. I brought the kale, tomatillos and most of the tomatoes to my parents who were in town this weekend, along with two winter squash my mom asked me to pick up from the farm. I feel like I'm turning into their own personal CSA since I seem to bring them vegetables every time I see them!

Now I'm off to the farm for work, and thankfully we have a lovely, sunny fall day to make up for the terribly cold and windy day we had last Friday.