Saturday, February 15, 2014

GBBD: Counting Birds, Not Blooms

Today is Garden Bloggers Bloom Day, the day each month when gardeners from all over share whatever blooms they have, whether outdoors or indoors.  I had hoped after my paltry offering last month that I would finally have something to share today, but the anticipation I've felt the last couple of weeks has turned into disappointment.  Let's take a look, shall we?

From Jan. 21 to Feb. 4 to Feb. 14
It took awhile for my amaryllis bulb to show any signs of growth, but once it did, it quickly took off. But as you can see, the leaves are tall and glossy, but absolutely no sign of a flower stalk!  This isn't the first time this has happened to me; I wouldn't have been surprised if my older bulbs had done this because they've been pretty neglected, but this was a new bulb purchased this winter.  Looks like I need to go back to my local amaryllis expert to see what I did wrong this time.

My Kalanchoe has a few tiny blooms, and my Christmas cactus is budding up again.  But what I'm really interested in this week is not indoors, but outside:

This weekend is the Great Backyard Bird Count, a project sponsored each February by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society to collect data on wild birds across the world. With the snow cover we've had this winter, there has been no shortage of birds to count in my yard.

You don't have to be a birding expert to participate: the website has links to sites for bird i.d. help, including the one at Cornell, which is excellent.  I certainly don't know much about birds, but I have no trouble recognizing our state bird and my personal favorite, the cardinal, who has been a frequent visitor at the feeders.

Nor do I have any trouble recognizing the less flamboyant, but just as lovely, female cardinal. But what is that little bird to her left?   When I'm not sure, I turn to my well-worn copy of  Birds of Illinois Field Guide by Stan Tekiela.  Flipping through the pages, I'm pretty sure this is a goldfinch.  Not long ago, I discovered that the goldfinch, so easy to spot by its bright yellow body in the summer, turns to a dull brown in the winter.

A frequent visitor here every winter is the Downy Woodpecker, who particularly enjoys the suet feeders.  I've learned that little red spot on his head means he's a male, which means I have at least a pair here, because I've also seen one without the red spot, a female. The most common bird I've seen is the dark-eyed Junco, including the one perched atop the feeder here.There are so many of them, usually foraging on the ground, that I'm not sure--did I count that one already??

A less common sight is the Red-bellied Woodpecker.  I took this photo a week ago, so unless I see him again this weekend, unfortunately, he won't make the count.

You don't even have to step outside to participate in the GBBC, if you don't want to.  All the photos here were taken through my large living room window (badly in need of cleaning, I might add).  To make viewing from indoors even easier, I added a new feeder this year that attaches to the window with suction cups to replace an old one that broke.  The only problem I've found with this feeder is that  it doesn't have much of a perch, so the larger birds have trouble using it.  But maybe that's a good thing--it's been popular with the small birds, like this Tufted Titmouse.  Look at those little feet!

The small birds like the Titmouse and the Chickadees aren't the only ones who appreciate this feeder. Toby and the rest of the furry inhabitants of our household have been enjoying the close-up version of bird television, too.

Watching the birds at the feeders makes counting easier, but I also survey the trees for any others too shy to come closer.  Oops, I don't think this guy is going to make the count:)

Refilling the bird feeders has become a daily routine this winter--lots of hungry birds in this cold!  The Bluejays may have a reputation of being bullies, but I think they're beautiful, and I'll keep putting out more food to keep them and everyone else accomodated.

The Great Backyard Bird Count runs through this Monday, February 17, so you still have time to participate, if you wish.  You can spend as much time as you want counting birds over the weekend or as little as 15 minutes.  All the information collected will help scientists determine what is happening with bird populations.  It's a great activity to share with kids, too, as I've done in the past with my grandkids.  And in case any of you think I have digressed from the original topic here, I leave you with this image of a White-breasted Nuthatch--a photo of a bird and some blooms.

To see more of what's in bloom around the world, visit our hostess Carol at May Dreams Gardens, who always has something to share even if her garden is also covered in snow.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Escaping Winter's Chill With a Good Book

Darn, I missed this month's meeting of the Book Review Club!  But I have a good excuse--I was snowed in:)  Yes, another 8 inches fell Tuesday night, cancelling area schools once again.  I remember when I was teaching, those late night announcements of school cancellation were usually a cause for celebration, knowing I could sleep in in the morning.  But this year I have a feeling these snow days are getting a little old, as teachers and students alike must wonder if the end of the school year will come before July!

The tractor--not to mention my husband--has been getting a workout this winter keeping our lane plowed.

As for me, I'm getting a serious case of cabin fever. Roads have been plowed, and school resumed yesterday for most, but highways are still a sheet of ice, and frankly, if I don't absolutely need to go somewhere, I'm staying at home.  The chance of sliding off into a ditch isn't worth it. The best escape for me at a time like this is to curl up with a good book, but the bad road conditions also mean I can't make it to the library.  Thank heavens for technology!  I have my Kindle, but I just discovered I could download a free Nook app on my iPad, meaning I can use up some of my B&N gift certificates without even leaving the comfort of my house.  I have enough good books now to tide me over through the winter, even if it lasts till April--heaven forbid!

The first book I downloaded using my Nook app is one I had seen on the bestseller lists for several weeks--How The Light Gets In by Louise Penny.  A big mystery fan, I'm always on the lookout for a new (to me) author to read, and the reviews of this book sounded promising. I'm pretty sure I have read one of Penny's novels before, but it had been some time ago, so I decided it was time to get to better know Chief Inspector Gamache.

Inspector Gamache of the Quebec Homicide Department has fallen on hard times.  His former partner has turned against him and is now working for Gamache's nemesis, Chief Superintendent Sylvain Francoeur.  Francoeur seems determined to ruin Gamache's reputation, or at the very least, force him into early retirement. He has broken up Gamache's squad, replacing his loyal officers with subordinates who have no respect for Gamache and view him as an ineffective leader not worth listening to.  Gamache's only remaining loyal colleague is Isabelle Lacoste, who wishes Gamache would be more assertive with his unit and show them the man he truly is.

It comes as somewhat of a welcome relief, then, when an old friend from the village of Three Pines, Myrna Landers, calls the Inspector when her friend Constance fails to show up for Christmas.  Gamache agrees to look into her disappearance and makes the trip to Three Pines, an isolated village populated by some colorful characters, including the eccentric and ill-tempered poet Ruth, whose constant companion is her duck Rosa. Adding a little humor to the story is the fact that Rosa the duck seems to be welcome everywhere, even the local bistro.

Not long after his visit, Inspector Gamache discovers Constance in her home, the apparent victim of murder.  As the investigation begins, he discovers a deep secret from Constance's past: her true identity as a member of a world-famous family.  Respectful of her privacy, Gamache quietly goes about solving the mystery of her death.

Had this novel revolved solely around the murder of Constance, the book would have been a cozy light read and probably wouldn't have garnered much attention.  But there is much more to the mystery than this.  As  Gamache methodically investigates the background of Constance to discover a motive for her killing, he is also secretly trying to find a link between his superior, Franceour, and possible corruption.  This plot is much more suspenseful and action-packed.  Not knowing who he can trust, Gamache finds the villagers of Three Pines willing and helpful allies.  The tension mounts as Gamache and the Superintendent head for a confrontation that will surely be the end for one of them.

Fans of Louise Penny were probably waiting eagerly for How the Light Gets In.  Although I didn't know the backstory of the relationships between the characters,  there were enough hints in the book to suggest that the previous book ended with a cliffhanger.  Without giving away too much, let's just say that Penny fans will no doubt be satisfied with the resolution in How the Light Gets In.  As for me, I'm a new Penny fan--Armand Gamache is my favorite kind of detective, much like Thomas Lynley in Elizabeth George's series or Richard Jury in Martha Grimes' mysteries.  He is an intelligent and shrewd investigator, full of compassion for colleagues and victims alike.  Most of all, Gamache is a man of integrity.  I will definitely be checking out earlier books in the series to carry me through this long winter.

I definitely won't be gardening for awhile!

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@Barrie Summy

Disclaimer: No compensation of any kind was received for this review, and I purchased my own Nook copy of How the Light Gets In.  As always, I review only books I enjoy and think others would enjoy reading too. Next month I hope to be on time--I'm already halfway through Elizabeth George's newest Thomas Lynley/Barbara Havers mystery, Just One Evil Act.