Friday, July 29, 2005

Handmade Soap

Life's on hold while I make soap!

Soapmaking by the cold process method involves patience. After the liquid soap is poured into the molds, it is insulated and left to harden for 24 hours. Then the soap is unmolded and air-hardened for one or two days before being cut into bars. After another few days the bars are trimmed. Then the bars "cure" for at least a month, to allow time for the excess water to evaporate.

Handmade soaps are perishable goods; they don't last forever. Soapmaking is a delicate balance of trying to meet demand with the freshest product possible. Make too little and customers have to wait. Make too much and you'll end up throwing it away.

I hate throwing soap away.

I also hate not having a particular soap in stock when someone wants it.

With my current equipment, I can make almost 400 bars of soap a day. But I prefer using only my newer molds (and saving my back), so normally I make about half that.

Our next craft show is Yellow Daisy, in September at Stone Mountain, Georgia. It's the best traditional craft show in the country. About 250,000 people will pass through the festival over the course of four days.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Beauty and the Beast

Two recent visitors:

A Great Egret (Ardea alba)

and two Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus)

The Black Vulture isn't really a beast of course. He's just got an image problem.

"Hey, compared to the Turkey Vulture, I'm a beauty queen!"

Actually I think they're both beauties. We see Turkey Vultures a lot more than Black Vultures, so I was tickled to see these guys perched in a dead tree last week on a foggy morning.

The Great Egret has decided that he likes our fishing hole and has been hanging around for the past week, getting used to us. The Great Blue Heron is the only one not happy about that.

He seems to think he's got exclusive fishing rights, and intimidates the Great Egret with lots of squawking and flapping. "Heron fight! Heron fight!"

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

There ought to be a law

(click for larger image)

When your neighbor's cows grow bored with their own several hundred acres and come to visit repeatedly. And erode the creek bank. And pulverize the ground with their hasty retreats. And gaze greedily at your pitiful garden. And smash your favorite crabapple sapling. And overlay the walking path with poop. When they kick at your sweet little doggy when all she's doing is trying to chase them back home.

When the neighbors have to be called a million times before they can be bothered to fix the fence. When you're afraid to leave the house for 4 days because you never know when those *@!%#&^$ cows might be back. And when the neighbors steadfastly refuse to give you a weekend contact number.

Well, in that case, don't you think there ought to be a law providing that the next time the cows come over, you're allowed to just keep one?

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

We could be twins

I always dress like this when I'm feeding the chickens. (In "a demure Grace Kelly-inspired chiffon dress and cashmere cardigan". Not to mention high heels.)

And my house looks just like that too. Yeah, that's the ticket.

Hint to Madonna: They're gonna want more than you've got in that little bowl.

Monday, July 25, 2005


The location of the Barn Swallow nests was a mystery this summer. The old nests were still there, but empty. (Had the European Starling cursed the building by hanging himself there?)

They visited regularly in the spring, to swoop down and carry off small chicken feathers for their nest building at an undisclosed site.

Suddenly this week, we have fledglings! There are about thirty of them, sitting on the wires or splashing down onto the pond to bathe in mid-flight. So cute!

Barn swallow (Hirundo rustica): the most wide-spread swallow, from Canada to South America, as well as Europe, Asia, and north Africa.

The juveniles have shorter tails than the adults, and are paler.

In other baby news, Shannon finally gave birth! So maybe she's through throwing up for a while.


Interesting info on Barn Swallows, from someone who makes artificial nests for them.

More interesting stuff about other birds' nesting activity, from the same site.

Some great Barn Swallow photos.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Search story

Several months ago I came across a hilarious search story on the blog Frogs and Ravens. She took some of the Google search terms that brought people to her site, and made a story of them.

At the time my blog was still new, and I only had a few searches per day. Then I seemed to achieve a critical mass (other than in my diet) and the search engines found me. Lately I remembered the search story meme and decided to try it myself.

I used all the searches, not just Google's, and I did them in the order that they appeared. This group of search strings is slightly different than usual, because it doesn't include searches for chicken and couscous salad, Leunig prayers, or turtle egg pictures, which I think are my top three search terms at present. But I writes 'em like I sees 'em, and just took the first 30 or so. So here you go. The search terms are bolded.

I needed a crash course in identifying caterpillars. While dining al fresco, I'd accidentally swallowed one that dropped into my zuchinni soup! I'd been worried and inattentive all day. With the chickens broody and denuding the trees of cedar berries, I couldn't stop agonizing: why do roosters pick on my hens?

That caterpillar must have been hallucinogenic. I imagined I could converse with weird looking turtles. They had good names no one else would think of, like Kitkitdizze! Their chief told me that they were all devoted arachnophiles. But their main job was to destroy all toads. Sevin was their preferred poison. After we spoke, they all crawled together into a chicken nest box, and enjoyed a catawba moth spread with witch butter that some Mergansers had sold them.

I set off on foot for the house of Jenny Zelle, who had a job sexing young chickens at the local hatchery. She liked my crazy chicken pictures, and knew a lot about herbal medicine.

Although it was broad daylight, a chorus of owls sounded from the trees. "At night they hunt catawba tree worms, Virginia" I whispered to my shadow.

Was I still hallucinating?

"A sapsucker! A chicken roosting in nest golf balls!" I exclaimed, when I reached the end of the country lane.

"You're not making sense," Jenny recoiled.

I sat down hard on her steps. "I need help identifying fuzzy caterpillars," I moaned.

I watched a Muscovy duck snatch a Japanese beetle from the Cataba in her yard, as I struggled to regain proper use of my tongue.

Jenny gasped. "Yellow fuzzy caterpillar?" she queried. "Near the chicken nesting boxes?"

I nodded vigorously. Jenny looked worried, but prescribed a strong dose of alcohol. "It's the worst caterpillar in Alabama. Buy Jack Daniels!"


It's Friday! Don't forget to view the Friday Ark. And there is a new "I and the Bird" over at Charlie's Bird Blog this week too.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Mystery solved

No wonder she's up barking all night.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Further adventures in digiscoping

Mrs. Belted Kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon) came to the pond, so I tried practicing my digiscoping again. It didn't help that it started raining after the first picture.

The last one is especially blurry, but I couldn't help posting it anyway. How often do you see a Kingfisher yawn?

Edited to add:
The Dharma Bums have Kingfisher shots posted today too!

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Tomato hornworm




Expletive deleted.

Technically this is a Tobacco Hornworm (Manduca sexta) instead of a Tomato Hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata). But people tend to call them all Tomato Hornworms. The distinction is in the number of stripes and the color of the "horn". Damage to tomato and pepper plants is the same. My poor litle Sungolds.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Marans start laying

I've been expecting our Rhode Island Reds to start laying any day now. But the Cuckoo Marans, at least one of them, beat them to it.

We got one small, rather scruffy looking egg on Saturday, then this still small, but beautifully smooth and glossy one on Sunday. (Shown here with eggs from a Dominique and a Leghorn for comparison.)

From what I'd read online, Marans don't normally lay until 6 - 8 months old, so this was a happy surprise.

The first eggs from early layers are usually small. My mother-in-law calls them "pullet eggs".

Marans eggs are dark. Eggs from hatchery chickens will probably not get as dark as some of the lovely pictures you can find on the internet (here in English and here in French), but they're still considerably darker than other brown eggs.

Marans are a quiet chicken, not flighty like Leghorns. Unfortunately this seems to mean that they get eaten by predators more often. Out of the ten Marans we ordered in the spring, we've only got five left.

Other people have told me that non-white egg layers follow a pattern: The eggs are not their darkest for the first few months. Then they develop more color, and are as dark as they'll ever be. The following year(s) the eggs are lighter in color.

I've noticed that it does seem to be true with the breeds we've raised.

Note: Marans is both the singular and the plural form of this breed's name.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Veggie dinner

It won't stop raining. Our garden is a mess.

So we shopped the local the farmer's market.

We had one sad little tomato from our garden. It was only partially pink, and had a mushy spot on one side and a brown spot on the other. What leaves the bugs and rabbits had left were wilting and turning yellow. (I guess I should have sprayed. It was an heirloom tomato, not resistant to much of anything.) It tasted wonderful, though.

The tomatoes in this picture looked wonderful on the back of that pickup at the farmer's market, but ended up a big disappointment. They were ripe red and beautiful, but just like grocery store tomatoes, had no taste. Next time I'm buying the ugliest ones I see.

Everything else was good though.

Young Yukon Gold potatoes, mmm. Cut up, mixed with a little olive oil and herbs, then roasted at 350°F (177°C) for about 45 minutes. I used McCormick's Italian Herb Seasoning Grinder because I was in a rush. But just plain thyme or rosemary with a little salt and pepper is good too. (Stir 3 or 4 times during cooking.)

Eggplants, mmm. I like the smaller ones. Slice and marinate in Italian dressing for about 30 minutes. (I like Newman's. All his stuff is great and is made with fresh ingredients.) Then coat with a mixture of corn meal, parmesan cheese, and salt & pepper. Bake at 350°F (177°C) until browned on top. (This will vary depending on how thick your slices are. But in general it takes 15 - 20 minutes.) Normally I like real shredded parmesan cheese instead of the powdery stuff in a can, but the powdery stuff actually mixes better with the corn meal.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Green chair frog

Have you ever heard of a dog who doesn't like to eat?

Jasmine has to be forced to eat, most days. Otherwise she'll sit and guard her food all day, protecting it from everything except ants. Then she won't want to eat it later either, because the ants bite her nose.

So now we have a game, in which she has to eat her food before a mean old stick gets it. One of us mans the stick, which constantly tries to sneak up and grab her food when she stops eating. She gets annoyed, snaps at the stick, and eats a little more.

Sometimes this game takes a while to finish, so I pull out a chair.

Guess what greeted me the last time I did that?

A green chair tree frog (Hyla cinerea).

I just love how he aligned himself with the green stripe, for camouflage!

His profile.

For your weekly critter fix, visit the Friday Ark.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Mom's swale

Do you know what a swale is?

If not, look at these pictures. Many nice swales illustrated there.

But if you aren't familiar with swales, you really shouldn't pretend that you are.

What a revelation, when I first realized that people can spout a total line of bull while sounding convincingly authoritative! I had blithely assumed that all the assertive people I encountered were, if not always tactful, at least sincere.

I'd finally reached a point in my college career - after changing majors, dropping out, getting married, starting back to school, changing schools, getting divorced, and changing schools again - where I knew a few things. Not a lot. But a few things.

An older student was was speaking aloud in class, when it suddenly dawned on me that I knew more than he did about the subject at hand. He was wrong. But he sure sounded like he knew what he was talking about.

The proverbial scales fell from my eyes. People who speak in a confident tone don't always know what they're talking about!

Mom's yard has always had drainage issues. Over the years, various fixes have resulted in only partial relief.

In years past, Mom would probably have built her own swale. You may remember how resourceful and independent she is. But she's had some health problems lately, so Mom asked her yard man if he could build her a swale.

"Yep sure no problem," the yard man assured her.

I think he's got his swales mixed up with his trenches.

But he sure sounded like he knew what he was talking about.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005


Cute Niece #1 has realized that her Nana can't say "no". My Mom excels at anything involving a needle and thread. So even though she'd never sewn things from kids' drawings, Cute Niece didn't see any reason why she shouldn't try. So she did.

"It's a softie!" I told them. I explained about the Month of Softies group craft project I'd read about on the blog Small Hands.

I just love the lopsided ears. "He's not supposed to have a tail," Cute Niece informed me.

Myself, I follow a predictable pattern when it comes to sewing projects:
1) I get excited about an idea for something.
2) I read several books about it.
3) I buy more supplies than I will ever need or use.
4) I take an overly long time making just one.
5) I never make it again.

Edited to add:
My sister called.
"I can't believe you forgot."
"Forgot what?"
"That your Cute Niece actually designed a three-legged dog. Named Tripod. You didn't mention that part. But you can see it in the picture if you know what you're looking for."

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Hummers R Us

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) are on the move again!

Except for the occasional western stray, this is the only hummingbird in Alabama.

A male flashes his ruby throat.

The females seem more demure.

A friend's mother-in-law believed that hummingbirds would sting you, and could not be convinced otherwise.


Monday, July 11, 2005

Soggy bottoms

We came through Hurricane Dennis just fine. In addition to weakening considerably, the storm took a more westerly route than expected. Our area was spared all but some heavy rain and gusty winds.

The rain gauge in our yard got knocked over - I believe there was a dog involved. But I don't believe totals reached those of the storm in the spring.

By comparison, Hurricane Ivan last year dropped about 7 inches (18 cm) of rain!

Just before the rain began yesterday, my husband came back from a walk and told me that the Bottlebrush Buckeye was blooming. Since it looked like the bottom was about to fall out, we drove there in the truck to snap a few pictures.

The creek was already muddy from the rain we'd gotten the night before.

Bottlebrush buckeye close-up (Aesculus parviflora).

On the way back, we spotted a couple of small Sassafras trees (Sassafras albidum). There aren't many in the immediate area.

If you've ever bought Gumbo Filé (Filé powder), that's all it is: powdered dried Sassafras leaves.

I also found some Skullcap (Scutellaria sp.).

I need to go back and examine it more closely - I didn't realize there were so many species until I tried to look this one up.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Calm before the storm

Hurricane Dennis is on the way.

Keeping my fingers crossed.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Farm report

About a year ago, a friend gave us one male and two female muscovy ducks. One of the females went missing the weekend I was away at the soap gathering.

Recently the other female made a nest in the yard, in a spot where five tree trunks meet.

She tries to stay hidden, but on one side she's fairly exposed.

Yep that's poison ivy.

A glimpse of the eggs. She laid seven of them and then started sitting.

I've been hoping that
1) no coyote or other critter will eat her,
2) the eggs will successfully hatch,
3) at least a few of the eggs will be pure muscovies instead of muscovy-runner hybrids,
4) at least a couple of the pure muscovies will be females.

That's a lot to hope for. But the friend who gave us the ducks has only males left (a predator got the others), and would like some females back, if we can produce any.

So imagine my disappointment yesterday when I found that something had eaten half the eggs.

Guess who was caught red-handed.

Bad dog! Very very very bad dog!

On today's to-do list: fencing.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Frustrating bird photography

Ever since we named our place "Kingfisher Farm" after one of the first birds we saw here, I've been trying to get a picture of its namesake.

They are wary birds. I haven't been able to get near. So a few days ago when one was perched nearby I grabbed the camera. The only shot I had was through a screened window.

Then he ended up looking like some sort of demon bird anyway.

He swooped down to grab some spilled dog food off the workshop porch! Can't say that I've ever seen Kingfishers do that before. Then, frustratingly, he never came back within camera range.

This morning just as my husband was about to leave for work, we noticed something skulking near the pond. From the size and color I thought it might be a Little Blue Heron, but something wasn't right.

I grabbed the binoculars, and wow! A juvenile White Ibis! Talk about your cool yard birds. Quick, the camera!

Ugh. Much too far away. Oh wait, maybe we should try digiscoping! But hubby had to leave or he was going to be late. When he took off the Ibis did too.

I set up the scope anyway, and hoped he'd come back.

He did!

Ta-da! Not perfect, but a lot better than the camera alone. I had to take about 45 shots to get one that was half-way decent. (There is no way to attach this camera to the scope lens.)

A green heron showed up so I tried photographing him too, but he didn't stay put very long.

Still needs work.


White Ibis (Eudocimus albus)
Green Heron (Butorides virescens)
Belted Kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon)

Much better picures than mine:
Juvenile White Ibis
Adult White Ibis
Ibis overhead (wow)

Link to site with other great bird pics and digiscoping articles.


Edited to add: Make sure to read the comments for an interesting discussion on the physics of black vs. white feathers!

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

White cats

You wouldn't think it would be so difficult to identify a plain white fuzzy caterpillar.

But it is.

I believe it is the white form of Spilosoma virginica - the Virginian Tiger Moth, a.k.a. Yellow Woolybear.

On the BugGuide web site, there are just a few references to the white form. The other forms look so different!

The adult moth is fairly attractive, as moths go.

The Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES!) offers Identifying Caterpillars in Field, Forage, and Horticultural Crops.

There is an extensive key that goes along with the publication, but having neglected to count the caterpillar's legs, I was lost.

At first glance I thought this might be one of the many stinging caterpillars present in Alabama, which is part of the reason I wasn't too keen on leg-counting.

But after looking through the pictures, I don't think so. (That page would be so much better with thumbnails.)

I have a strong "better safe than sorry" policy when it comes to things that sting or bite. I guess I should have tried to get the caterpillar to climb onto a stick for further ID purposes, but there was Jasmine to consider. She tends to have a strong "stick your nose right on it" policy.


Edited to add:
More info on stinging caterpillars is here and here. For specifics in your area, try googling the name of your state or province along with the words "stinging caterpillars".

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Night crawling

"Hey there's a cool frog, come and get a picture!"

Actually it turned out to be a toad, Fowler's Toad (Bufo fowleri).

More info is here.

Until I got inside and looked it up, I thought it was an American Toad. But they've only got one or two warts per dark spot, and this guy had up to five. I only got one shot of his back, and it wasn't a great one, but works for ID purposes.

After deciding he was a Fowler's Toad, I listened to a sound recording.

And realized that there must have been another one nearby - we'd heard him calling while photographing this one. Their sound has been described as a bleating sheep with a cold. (I'll bet it sounds lovely to other Fowler's Toads though.)

In other nighttime activities of the week, we saw Barn Owls in Cullman, at my in-laws'. I was surprised that they'd hang around in residential neighborhood for so long, but evidently they've been there a while.

I tried to get a picture, but my camera doesn't really "do" full dark, even with a flashlight assist.

See the owls? No? Me neither.

I did get a sound recording. Despite being able to glide and even flap their wings in total silence (the better to sneak up on mice), they were a pretty mouthy bunch. Their hissing and screeching was almost otherworldly. If you heard it coming from behind you in a barn at night, you'd have no trouble believing a ghost was hard on your tail.

If I can figure out how to post it here, I will.