Friday 19 December 2014

Birdwatching Treats

Sorry for the bad pic, which was taken in increasingly poor
light and increasing rain - taking a chain saw to the hedge.
Every now and then this lovely area where we live dishes up a bird-watching treat and this week I got 2 on consecutive days. On the Wednesday I was decapitating the gnarly , overgrown hedge that runs along the East side of our lawn, stopped to rest the chainsaw and heard a short, repeated 'kip kip kip' call from high up in the black spruce trees. Looking up I could see some birds acrobatically clambering and fluttering about the highest branches (60-70 feet up!), apparently ripping off cones and stripping them of seed. I was intrigued and nipped in for the binoculars and then took a few minutes trying to get a good, well-lit, clear view of them (I was looking straight up, so all I could get was a back-lit silhouette.

Tidier and better lit!
I am sure it was crossbills I was looking at, which are a new species for me here and, I think, anywhere - they ticked all the boxes I could rake up from memory and books - beefy looking finch, russet-red colour (in the males), the calls, moving as a group of 7, acrobatics, feeding on pine cones. However, I must admit I had to nip in to the biodiversity website to see if I was "allowed" them (I have come unstuck before with crows (we only have hooded crows), swans (only Whoopers here, not Bewick's) and owls (only Long Eared, no 'shorties' here)).

When we come back on lay, we don't mess about! We are looking
for a cross eyed chicken after we found this 118 g ridged shell
monster! She'll settle back down to normal eggs now. 
The next day, I was walking the dogs along the lane and got my best view ever of a bird I need nobody to confirm for me, the sparrow hawk. We both know this raptor well, having enjoyed a regular resident female bird for many years in our garden in Kent. This one was a male who I saw coming towards us (the dogs and I) down the middle of the lane about 2 feet off the tarmac, probably looking left and right for unsuspecting wrens or blackbirds in the hedges, rather than looking where he was going.

He came in from a good 100 yards away; he came on and on and was getting closer and closer. I was starting to think he'd hit me at about knee height and I might have to duck out of the way! About ten feet away from me he suddenly seemed to notice us and veered off through a gap in the hedge, but he was close enough that I could see every feather on his back and the gorgeous yellow iris and yellow eyelids of his eye. What a handsome chap! I love a sparrowhawk. Both these sightings have obviously gone onto the (National) biodiversity database and the crossbills are also now in my garden bird survey which, for us here, runs continuously for the 13 weeks through December to March.

Having a go with Royal Icing. A reasonably tidy job. 
It's my job, these Christmases to marzipan and ice the cake. I can't claim to be an expert, but I do enjoy it and this year I decided to go with a sheep theme; I do not seem able yet to go collect my real sheep, but at least I can have them on my cake! I was going with a design similar to that used on the dustbin lids (see earlier post)  so I had already scrounged a nugget of black fondant icing from that ace and experienced cake maker, Mrs Silverwood. I just needed to sort out some green icing (for the grass) and white (for the sides of the cake and the sheep themselves)

I did OK, but must admit to a couple of rookie errors which nearly spoiled the day. First up, I thought it was 'Royal' icing I needed to be rolling out sheets like I did the marzipan, and to be sticking them on (it isn't, as cunning cake makers will know; it is 'fondant' icing). 2nd up, I knew I had to pro-rata down the icing from the recipe; that was using 675 g of icing sugar (!) but instead of pro-rata-ing down from three TEASPOONS of lemon juice, I did it with "the juice of x lemons" so I ended up with a very sloppy and lemony mixture. No matter, we rescued it and I was able to smear the icing on with a 'pallet knife' (well, sort of) and got a good finish both with the green top and the white sides.

Christmassy touches about the place. 
Then I was into making up some of the correct kind of icing (fondant) for the sheep bodies and rolling out Mrs S's black icing for legs, ears and faces. I used some left over Royal for the lettering (which I must admit to being not very tidy at, the icing syringe is not a very easy 'pen' to hold steady and guide accurately) and then bashed up some more for the fancy piping round the top and bottom of the sides. Bingo, an unusual cake which we are very pleased with.

Finally today, a family Christmas mystery which someone somewhere may be able to help us with. Among the Christmas decs we faithfully pull out each year and pack away each 12th Night, is a terracotta crib which you can put a tea-light into to make the windows light up. It has managed to get cracked somewhere along the lines and the sheep on the bottom left corner is broken off, so every year we promise to glue it back together and every year we fail and pack it away again, unfixed. Our mystery is over 'where did it come from?'. Neither of us can recall buying it or receiving it as a gift and yet we have had it, as far as we can remember, for as long as we have been together. I was convinced it was Liz's but she, equally was convinced it was mine. So if, reading this, you can remember giving it to us, then please comment. We will love it no less, but at least we'll know where it came from!

Newbridge silver tree decoration. 
Ah well, tomorrow I am off on an airport run; we have a house guest for a few days. We have been mad busy today and we are nearly ready. We are hoping for a break in the weather so that we can show the lady some of the local environs. I am secretly hoping that we will get the call from Mayo-Liz to say our real sheep are ready for collection; it would be so much fun to take our guest with us to collect them! Not holding my breath on that one, though.

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