Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Skywatch Friday: Year End Sign?

Sign Seen in Flagstaff, AZ 12-14-08 by Kathiesbirds

This sign is posted on Beulah Blvd in Flagstaff, AZ near the hotel we stayed in when we took my mother back to the train. In the background you can see one of the peaks of the San Fransisco Mountains with a fresh blanket of snow. It seems an appropriate photo for the end of 2008 with the New Year upon us. May all your Dead Ends be "Temporary" in 2009!

Happy New Year!

Just Click and go!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

My World: Flagstaff, AZ

Gandy Dancer Sculpture by Clyde "Ross" Morgan October 21, 2000

Photo by Kathie Brown 12-14-08 Nikon D80 18-70mm lens.

(Click on any photo to enlarge for the best view.)

As the train pulled out of the station on December 14th, taking mom back to New England the cold light of a snowy dawn illuminates the sky. The Amtrak train rumbles past the sculpture of "The Gandy Dancer," a tribute to the men who built these tracks so long ago. Beneath the sculpture a plaque tells me that these men were called Gandy Dancers because they sang songs to keep the rhythm as they worked the rails and built the tracks with tools manufactured by the Gandy Tool Company. Beside being a stop on the railroad line, Flagstaff is also home to Northern Arizona Universty, as well as being the gateway to the Grand Canyon, one of America's most popular National Parks. I have yet to visit there myself, though I have driven past numerous times and we are so close now...but the day is cold and the drive home is long.

So, we pull out of the train station to head back to the La Quinta Inn where we hope to catch a few more winks of sleep before the long ride back to Tucson and warmth. As we head south on South Milton Road, the main road towards our hotel, Gus and I are looking around us at the snow covered town. We are lost in conversation and before we know it, we miss the turn. Normally, this would not be a big deal, but in Flagstaff the main road becomes interstate 17 as you head south. We soon find ourselves on a divided highway with all of our stuff and our poor little dog back at the hotel and no way to turn around! I start to panic as the roads are bad and the snow too deep to cross the median. I have no idea how far south we will have to travel before we finally find an exit but, just a few miles down the road we spot one.

We get off the highway and cross over the interstate to the north-bound on-ramp. As we do, the panorama of the San Francisco Peaks comes into view bathed in the soft light of dawn. My panic subsides with the beauty before me. We would have missed this if we had not missed our turn. A soft gray cloud hovers over snow-capped Humphrey's Peak, the highest point in Arizona with an elevation of 12,633 feet.

We are soon back at our hotel as the morning clouds blush in the first light of day. We grab some breakfast in the lobby and head up to our room. I read for a bit as Gus drifts off to sleep. All the while the birding itch grows more intense. Finally, I can stand it no longer. I bundle up and head outside to see what birds I can find around the parking lot.

The sun brightened sky does nothing for the temperature, which hovers around 20 degrees F. Though I walk the perimeter of the parking lot, all I find are crows and ravens trying to find some warmth in the sun. Though crows are common across most of the United States, we don't have them down in Tucson. These are the first crows I have counted in Arizona. I count 12 in the immediate area.

Later on when Gus is up we pack up the car and check out. Gus promised me we could spend a little time birding while we are here, so, he humors me by driving around town as I try to find more birds to count. It appears the birds are smarter than I am, for I can't find anything other than crows and ravens. Finally, we stop at Thorpe Park on the west side of town, where I find this lone white-breasted nuthatch scooting down the bark of a pine tree. It's nearly noon now and I admit defeat. There will be no more bird watching in Flagstaff today for me.

Standing in the snow amongst the towering pines these tree bones laugh at me in their nakedness while I am bundled in coat, hat, and gloves...

...And Gus calls his folks in Maine and tries to convince them he really is standing in snow. Then, it's into the car as we head south back down the same highway that has now melted off with the peaks of the San Francisco Range in our rear view mirror and the hope of warm temperatures ahead.

Other Flagstaff Attractions:

Friday, December 26, 2008

Skywatch Friday: Winter Train

Amtrak Train or the Polar Express? 12-14-08 by Kathiesbirds

We waited at the Flagstaff Train depot the train to come. In pulled into the blue station in the predawn hours under cobalt blue skies and a half hour late. The outside temperature was 18 degrees Fahrenheit. With the fresh dusting of snow it felt like we were putting my Mom on the Polar Express. Say Hi to Santa for me Mom, and have a safe trip home in time for the holidays!

( Click to continue your Skywatch Christmas tour!)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Best Christmas Tree

It was the winter of 1983. We were young and poor with two small children to feed and not a lot of money for Christmas. We lived in Connecticut then, off a road in Killingly called Squaw Rock Road. The roads in Connecticut always have such picturesque names. I didn’t know it then, having lived there all my life, I kind of took it for granted. Once I moved out west, however, with their longitude and latitude street addresses of 1625 East 2550 North, I really started to appreciate the color and flavor of the street names in New England.

We needed a Christmas tree for our small family, but with little money to buy one, we weren’t sure what to do. In our family we always had a live tree and going out to hunt for one in a snow covered field always made the experience special. Back then there were numerous tree farms where one could pay $10 to $15 for just such a chance. But even that small amount of money seemed impossible this year, yet with hope against hope we piled into our old yellow van and headed out for a drive to see what we could see.

The day was gray and overcast. Tatters of clouds drifted over the sky. I don’t know what prompted us to head towards Willimantic, but we did. The roads of New England wind up and down and around hills. Around each new corner another picturesque scene is revealed. Though the scenes may have a similar New England flavor, they are never the same. The topography of the land prohibits repetition. So, while one old white farm house may set on a hill with a red barn nearby, the next one down the road will be slightly different, with a varied arrangement to the house and barn, perhaps with different trees or a stone wall defining the driveway, or cows in nearby pasture, grazing on winter brown grass.

Today the air had the edge of ice in it as we drove past a bog on the right. Across the road a pasture widened out and beyond it a small farm house sat on a knoll. At the far edge of the pasture a wide ribbon of evergreen caught our eyes. We slowed the van, then pulled off the road and opened the doors. Though this was not a Christmas Tree Farm, a stand of white pines of just the right size called to us from across the snow covered field. We wondered if the farmer would let us cut just one to bring home as our Christmas tree. A door opened on the farm house and a man walked out. We jumped back into the van and drove forward, pulling into the driveway. Gus hopped out and held a brief conversation with the farmer. I saw him offer the man the few dollars that we had, then I saw the farmer shake his head, declining the proffered money. With the farmer’s approval we drove our vehicle just a short way back towards the trees, pulled as far off the road as we could, and got out.

Now it may seem strange that we came equipped with our own saw, but back in those days it was not unusual for people to cut down small evergreens or even cedar trees from pasture land for Christmas trees. My own grandfather used to own a farm in Colchester where we often cut a cedar tree for our Christmas tree. While they smell delightful in the house, filling the rooms with their cedar perfume, they are awfully painful to decorate as each tiny flat needled end is covered in stiff hairy spines. You paid for the fragrance with blood. Now we stood at the edge of the field with our goal in sight.

The smoky gray clouds drifted overhead and I heard the honking of Canadian geese calling from beyond the clouds. The wild call stirred something inside me, a prevalent longing for something else. I wanted to mount on wings myself and fly away to someplace wild with the flock. The clouds briefly parted revealing the black, gray and white arrow formation flying through the leaden skies. Just then a snow flurry passed over making the air sparkle with wonder.

We trudged across the snow covered grasses towards the evergreen edge. The trees were much larger than they looked from the road, and now the challenge became finding one small enough to fit in the van and the house. The long flexible limbs of the white pines brushed against us as we finally choose our tree. Gus lay down in the snow to get at the trunk and sawed through in short order. As the saw broke through the tender flesh the scent of pine and sawdust filled the silver air.

Though the tree was bulky, it was also lightweight. We dragged it to the van, opened up the back, and pulled it inside. Our two young boys giggled with delight as the tree filled the interior of the van. This tree would fill our living room with its four foot girth of bows. I’d be hard pressed to find enough ornaments to cover the branches, but that mattered little now, for the tree had already produced the best gift of all, the memory of finding it in a snow covered pasture, the kindness of the farmer who let us cut it down, and the wild geese flying overhead serenading the season in wild tones.

Merry Christmas!

Blogger's Note: The painting is a detail of Christmas in the Mouse House by Kathie. See the complete painting with poem here.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Tucson Botanical Gardens continued...

Old Pueblo Grille, Tucson, AZ 12-11-08 by Kathie

The howling winds and heavy gray skies that greet me this morning are a far cry from the calm sunny day Mom and I spent at Tucson Botanical Gardens just 12 days ago. On that Thursday morning we paid out admission fee...

...then wandered through sun dappled paths to visit Butterfly Magic, a display hosted every year during the cooler months and contained within a small green house where one can wander freely among the fluttering butterflies. After spending almost an hour inside we are examined by a volunteer for hitchhikers before exiting through a small room with a mirror where we re-examine ourselves to make sure no butterflies escape. Once outside the warm winter sun greets us and Mom finds a cool spot in the shade of a Ramada to rest. Nearby a fountain trickles and a pyrrhuloxia flies in for a drink.

We wander down the garden paths past this blooming agave. Mom stands nearby to give perspective to the height and squints in the bright afternoon sun.

We wander farther into the garden past various cacti and desert plants. Where we find a saguaro entangled with a mesquite tree as if the two were one.

Most saguaros grow in the shade of a nurse tree and it takes over 60 years before they even start to form "arms." By then the nurse tree is often dead, but this saguaro and its mesquite nurse have grown together in a tangle, as if leaning on each other for strength. It seems it would be difficult to separate them now after all these years.

As with most gardens, the birds find shelter in this small acreage of greenery in the center of a busy city. While most broad-billed hummingbirds have flown south for the winter, this little fellow is lingering here at the far end of the garden in deep shade.

There are other birds about also. I find a thrasher deep in the thickets and then this mockingbird high in a tree. In a few months there will be even more birds retuning to this oasis in the city. The humans will flock here too, to enjoy the sights, sounds and shade in this garden of delights.

Meanwhile, Mom has found some fiberglass friends to be photographed with. It is well past lunch time, so we head out of the garden...

...wandering past this Cristate saguaro with its funky fingered crown, an unpredictable mutation sometimes seen in the desert.

A Komodo dragon sculpture bids us good-bye as we walk to our car and we drive the short distance south on Alvernon Way to the Old Pueblo Grille for lunch.

The Old Pueblo Grille is a favorite place of mine to dine in Tucson. It's local offerings are affordable and the atmosphere is perfect for that southwest experience. Since the weather is so nice we decide to dine on the patio under an orange tree ripe with fruit. The stucco walls, various palms and numerous fountains drown out the sounds of the busy traffic rushing by.

For us all is peace and beauty as we await the delivery of our delicious meals. Mom has southwest pot roast of tender spicy meat. I choose a combo plate of chicken enchiladas and beef machaca, a new experience for me. All is delicious but we want to save room for the tempting desert offerings. We each ate about half our meals, then boxed them up to bring home.

(If you scroll to the bottom of the menu you will find the address and phone number of the restaurant with a link to mapquest.)

And who can blame us with Irish Cream Creme Brulee and Double Chocolate Obsession Mousse Cake for desert! I had the creme brulee while Mom had the Chocolate Obsession. Though I love chocolate, I usually don't go for something like that, but after a bite of Mom's I was hooked. Her serving was so large we brought half of it home, then shared it later on!

As we leave The Old Pueblo Grille the bougainvillea blooming everywhere catches our attention as it climbs the stucco walls...

...and reaches for the sky with scarlet paper petals. You gotta love a place with flowers in winter. It is a perfect end to one of Mom's last days in Tucson. On Friday we stayed home and prepared for the long journey to Flagstaff, where she will catch the train home.

Blogger's note: Mom is safely back in Connecticut now making her own preparations for Christmas. I have one more post to write about our trip to Flagstaff, AZ where Gus and I encountered snow for the first time in a year and a half since moving here. I'll publish that post after Christmas. For tomorrow you can read about "The Best Christmas Tree." I wrote it the other day when I was thinking about how much fun we used to have searching for a fresh cut tree and the memory came back so crisp and clear I had to write it down before it slipped away. By the way, all of today's photography is by me, Kathie.

And Many Thanks to Doug Taron of Gossemer Tapestry for identifying the numerous butterflies seen at Butterfly Magic, part of MY World Tuesday. You can scroll down to read about it, or click on the link!

Monday, December 22, 2008

My World: Buttterfly Magic

Though they look like Christmas tree ornaments, these are the chrysalises in the emergence room at Tucson Botanical Gardens. My Mother loves Butterflies, so when she learned that Butterfly Magic is going on right now we made our plans to visit.

Butterfly magic runs from Nov 1, 2008 through March 2009. The butterflies of Australia are on display for the month of December. We pay our admission fee and walk through shady paths to the greenhouse where the butterflies fly free.

A volunteer at the doorway explains the rules to us before we enter the building. She tells us the butterflies may land on us but we are not to chase them or to touch them. We are warned to watch out for butterflies landing on the paths and if we see one, to tell a volunteer, so it can be removed before it gets stepped on. Then she opens the first door and closes it tightly before letting us in through a shredded plastic curtain that helps to keep butterflies safely inside the moist warmth of their temporary home.

As soon as we enter the small building we see butterflies. I hurry to start snapping photos, then realize I will have to wait for my camera to adjust to the temperature and humidity as the lens and eyepiece fog up. I wipe frantically and try to focus but it would have been better just to wait it out, for it does no good. Finally I can see and I snap off several pictures of this beautiful Peacock Swallowtail.

Then a Paper Kite lands nearby revealing the startling beauty of its simple black and white pattern.

Fluttering about us in constant blue motion are several Blue Morphos. Can you find them in the above photo? They seldom land and when they do, they seldom land with their wings open.

This is a blue morpho with folded wings.

Here is one with its wings fluttering open. They never stay still so the photo is a bit blurry.

In the next frame the wings are closed again, but you can still see a hint of the blue for which they are named.

1.Common Eggfly from Malaysia or the Phillipines

I am by no means a butterfly expect, so I am depending on Doug, from Gossamer Tapestry, Gallicissa, Troy of Ramblings Around Texas, Nina of Nature Remains, Ann of Nature Tales and Camera Trails, or any other Australian Butterfly Experts out there to tell me the names of the rest of these. I've numbered the photos and will fill the answers in as they arrive. If you don't know their names, you can still choose a favorite. I honestly can't decide which one I like best, but the Peacock Swallowtail is at the top of my list!

2. Cattleheart from Central or South America

3. Ruby-spotted Swallowtail from Central or South America

4. Blue Clipper

5. Crimsom Rose

6. Owl spot

7. Owl Spot open

8. Chocolate Pansy from Malaysia

This butterfly landed on the strap of a little girl's pocketbook. She had on a bright red skirt and the butterflies kept landing on her skirt and blouse. She kindly let me take this picture (with her mother's permission of course!)

9. (possible)Lurcher from Australia

10. Scarlet Mormon

11. Helena Birdwing from Malaysia

This large butterfly was clinging to the metal girders that form the walls of the green house.

12. Cruiser from Malaysia

13. Common Tiger from Malasia

14. Malachite from Florida and/or Central/South America

15.Sara Longwing from Central/South America

Many thanks to Doug Taron from Gossemer Tapestry for identifying these butterflies for me. All names in blue are his ID's

Believe it or not, there were even more, and Tucson Botanical Gardens offers a Special Session just for Photographers, but I had no problem photographing these with my Nikon D80 and 70 to 300 mm lens hand held. I'm sure even better photos could be achieved with a macro lens and a tripod but I'm kind of like the Blue Morpho-always on the move.

The heat and humidity finally drove us outside, so comeback tomorrow to read more about Tucson Botanical Gardens, which has so much more to offer. Then, we had lunch at the Old pueblo Grille. What a scrumptious and pretty place to dine! (Wait till you see what we had for desert!)