View to a kill

fresh kill February 9 2014Nature often shows her seemingly cruel side, and the backyard is not immune from those demonstrations. A sharp shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus) surprised a starling (Sturnus vulgaris) near the bird feeder today, while it was feasting on the bird seed we leave out. Sharp shinned hawks are not all that uncommon around here but they tend to hang out in the woods. The bird feeder provides some incentive to come out of the trees. It is probably not the first time either as I have found feathers on a few occasions over the last couple of months. I am not sure whether the bird in the picture is a female or a male, but females tend to be much bigger than the males. It is common for males to remove the head before delivering prey to their young, but it is winter, even though the head was removed from the starling’s torso in this instance. The hawk was pretty particular about not ingesting feathers and spent additional time plucking the bird. It was eating for a good half hour before crows landed nearby. The hawk was well aware of their presence and took off with speed and agility I have not seen in many other birds. It took the torso and left the head behind, maybe as an offering to the crows…

The head of the starling was quickly removed (presumably after eating the good bits)

The head of the starling was quickly removed (presumably after eating the good bits)



Keep Clam and Carry On

This fall season has been excellent for clamming and oystering on Cape Cod. However, the usual Linguini with Clams and Clam Chowder had been served in our kitchen quite enough and needed some spicing up. Luckily for us, a restaurant we frequent serves something like this excellent dish that follows.  Although I had an inkling of the ingredients, I had no luck finding the recipe online. We were lucky to one day get their chef’s secret recipe. It is called simply: Spicy Clams or Spicy Littlenecks. There is nothing like it, and the ingredients can all be found cheaply and easily. The dish takes all of 20 minutes to cook. This recipe is for 2, so add or subtract accordingly:

You’ll need:

  • 24 littlenecks, (10-12 each depending on the size, of the person or clams)
  • half fistful of pasta or whatever you usually eat
  • 1.5 oz of Feta cheese (about 1/4 of those squares sold in shops)
  • 1/2 pint of cherry tomatoes, each cut in half
  • 1/4 of a 1 pound bag of spinach (more or less can’t hurt). just take off bigger stems.
  • White wine – really anything will do
  • olive oil
  • 1/3 med red onion finely chopped
  • 1 garlic clove chopped
  • red pepper flakes, 1-2 tablespoons

In a sauté pan (I use a wok) sauté red pepper flakes, red onion, garlic, tomatoes, spinach in olive oil until onions start to look clear. 5 minutes or so. Add 2 cups (really can be more) white wine until it bubbles, add clams, cover. Boil your pasta for 9 minutes, around the same time. Cook clams in the wine mixture until they open – about 10 mins – however do not leave opened ones in the pot. In final minute throw in chopped feta cheese. Put your pasta on plates and start to serve as they open so they won’t get tough. Spoon clams over pasta, add bits from the sauce.

A note about wine: I learned to cook with red wine from a friend who cooked pretty much every dish with red wine and garlic. I find these wines interchangeable for cooking, I usually use whatever’s left around, or buy a less expensive bottle just for cooking. In the case of clams, I strongly advise white wine however. I usually use Sauvignon Blanc because it’s what I like to drink, but anything can work unless it is a desert type wine.

Numerous flowers look like cotton candy from afar.  Or maybe I just need a new prescription.

Numerous flowers look like cotton candy from afar. Or maybe I just need a new prescription.

This amazingly prolific aster is everywhere in my yard, and that is not a bad thing as it was also one of the favorite feed plants of a resident woodchuck. The young plants were simply decimated down to the soil, while the taller plants are now mostly devoid of their big leaves. Many stems were broken as the animal tried to reach the leaves at higher elevations. The plant ranges anywhere from half a foot to 4 feet in my garden, depending on light conditions. The plant seems to thrive in pretty much any spot, though, and the seedlings of spring are in some cases producing flowers already. In a few weeks the flowers will give way to seed that will be carried by the wind. I should have many more common blue wood asters come next spring (hint: let me know and I will reserve plants for you). This plant has many branches with a multitude of pale blue flowers that are extremely showy.

September 23 2013

September 23 2013

In the shade the plant is tall and flowers are sparse

In the shade the plant is tall and flowers are sparse

There are many cultivars and color variations of this particular species of aster. When you go to garden centers you will often find these plants under the name Michaelmas daisies. Mind you, these “daisies” don’t look anything like the plant of origin. And here’s another trivia (or trivial?) item: At one point in time, New York State, where this plant is common, was known as New Belgium, and therefore the plant has novi-belgii in its moniker. The smooth leaves differentiate the species from new england aster. The flowers are not as good for cutting as those of the new england asters, as they are decidedly less showy and smaller, but they provide excellent color in the late summer and fall garden. They prefer sun but they will propagate on rhizomes in the shade garden as well – there they are MUCH taller (7 to 8 feet in my woodland garden) and the flowers are packed less densely together.


new york aster flowers up close and personal - September 23 2013

new york aster flowers up close and personal – September 23 2013

Staking was not required as the plant could lean against the chimney - September 23 2013

Staking was not required as the plant could lean against the chimney – September 23 2013

This aster does not need a lot of care and can be grown easily in average soil. Unlike some of the woodland asters, it prefers sunny conditions. The plant can get rather tall (up to 6 feet tall) and lanky, and when the flowers appear it may require staking. Another way to get bushier shorter plants is to pinch back the stems any time before mid-July. This is a good cutting flower to bring indoors. This aster self-seeds easily and will also send out long rhizomes which will bring new plants in unexpected places. The new england asters in my yard have also fallen prey to the woodchuck, and the only one remaining was perched right against the house.

Symphyotrichum laeve September 23 2013

Symphyotrichum laeve September 23 2013

This aster has showy violet-blue flowers with golden centers. The plant is relatively easy to grow and control in many different soil and light conditions, but it does best in full sun and somewhat sandy soil. The foliage is very green and smooth (it is less hairy and rough than other species of aster)

The blue hues of smooth aster are simply stunning

The blue hues of smooth aster are simply stunning

This plant can reach 2 to 5 feet in height and displays a plateau (flat topped) of creamy white flowers when in bloom. The flowers are relatively long-lived from August through October. The florets of the flower heads turn a creamy white color after the bloom period. The plant has no basal leaves but there are alternate lanceolate leaves along the stem. Flat topped aster reproduces mainly by seed, although small colonies can grow from the rhizomes as well.

flat topped aster September 23 2013

This particular plant has really taken to its surroundings this year.  Flowers are plenty and the plant is over 5 feet tall

This particular plant has really taken to its surroundings this year. Flowers are plenty and the plant is over 5 feet tall

Bigleaf aster is named after the large heart shaped leaves. These leaves are up 8 inches long and 6 inches wide, on long stems. They become progressively smaller up the main stem; leaves at the top of the plant have little or no leaf stem. All leaves are coarsely toothed; attachment is alternate. You should be aware that not all plants will flower, so make sure you can be happy with a leafy plant. It is actually a great seasonal groundcover. The flowers of Eurybia macrophylla are quite irregular – the flowers actually look messy. They consist of 9 to 20 pale blue to violet petals spaced around a yellow center. As you can tell from the picture, the center turns reddish brown later in the fall.


Bigleaf aster actually needs some amount of light for flowering and subsequent seed production, which can be quite prolific. In dense forest you may just see the leaves, and the flowering stems are typically not present. In those habitats the plant forms colonies from the rhizomes. In a sense, this plant keeps its options open – it can thrive in deep shade, and it can suddenly take advantage of changes (like a tree falling and creating a clearing that brings more light to the forest floor) and adapt its reproductive ways.

Bigleaf aster September 23 2013

Eurybia macrophylla is visited by butterflies. There are some culinary uses as the young leaves may be cooked and eaten. Macrophylla means large leaf in Greek and some other uses come to mind – it is not called lumberjack toilet paper for nothing…

Nature firsts

Although work and life has kept me busy and away more than I like from my time spent in the yard and in nature, there have been some nice surprise “firsts” this year:

  • My first bald eagle sighting (on my commute home)
  • My first praying mantis find (at the Natural History Museum in Brewster)
  • My first extremely juvenile snapper turtle (barely 2 inches long, on Thacher Shore Road, Yarmouth – an exact miniature likeness of the mature turtle)
  • My first woodchuck experience (exciting and frustrating all at once)
  • My first dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) bloom (the plant grew from rootstock less than an inch long)
  • My first screech owl home invasion
  • My first time being hit by a white-tailed deer (correct, not the other way around)

Fall spiders

I’m amazed at the variety of spiders I see in the yard or around the house. Most of the time I don’t have a camera on hand or I am rushing off to one place or another, and when I come back the spider has inevitably disappeared. With the orb weavers you have a bit more of a chance that they will be around for a second glance. We had the pleasure of having the company of this garden orb weaver (Neoscona crucifera) in our kitchen window for a week or two. The same species also graced the doorway of one of our favorite restaurants for some time, pretending to be an early Halloween decoration. The one at our house probably fell prey to a bird, and the restaurant spider probably scared the clientele too much. Either way, they both went missing around the same time. Orb weavers tend to reside on their spiral web, with their head pointing down, waiting for prey. I did notice the spider guarding an egg sac in a nook of the window frame, so food was not the only thing on her mind.

Neoscona crucifera enjoying a meal. September 2013

Neoscona crucifera enjoying a meal. September 2013

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