Friday, March 30, 2007

Bolsa Chica

Yesterday afternoon I went down to Bolsa Chica to see the changes that have been made since I was last there. (Egad! that was in 2002! Where did the time go?) Bolsa Chica in Huntington Beach, CA, is an ecological reserve of tidal mudflats that has some of the best birding in the country. The number of birds and the number of species one can see here is "fabulous."

Bolsa Chica is part of the Pacific Flyway, the "River of Migrating Birds" that extends from Alaska and the Aleutian Islands in the north to the tip of Argentina in the south. Each year millions of birds make this trip twice! The Southern California coastline offers over 19 bays and estuaries that provide a rest stop and feeding ground for these mighty travellers. Sadly, this is only 10% of the coastal wetlands that used to be available for birds. What makes for a good rest stop for birds also makes a good harbor and scenic spot on which man likes to build houses. Bolsa Chica is one place where many people have worked tirelessly to prevent that from happening to this site.

My husband and I have birded here since we got hooked on birdwatching in the 90s. We were one of the first to contribute to the Land Trust which has been so successful in preserving this treasure. One of the more recent things they have done and which was the reason for my trip is to remove the dam that had kept the sea water from flowing in and out of the mudflat area with the tides. You can see the opening in the far right corner of this photo. I wanted to see what changes this made in the habits of the birds. I was pleasantly surprised.

It was a glorious, sunny, but windy afternoon. I parked my car in the small parking area in the middle of the reserve as you enter from Pacific Coast Highway. There is a boardwalk here that crosses the water and allows views of either end of the traditional area that the reserve owned. Now 880 acres have been added including the tidal areas further in from the ocean which used to be oil fields. That didn't stop the birds, but the fences kept the people out. Now it is all open with only some posted signs to warn you of nesting areas. You walk along the top of berms that separate the various areas which also gives you a good view of the birds as it is otherwise all very flat and wide open to the sky and with very little vegetation.

I first spotted a stingray in the water below the bridge and lots of clam shells along the shoreline that I hadn't noticed before. Algae along the edges of the water indicated that the tide was out. A Belding's Savannah Sparrow, only found in Southern California salt marshes, greeted me in exactly the same location that we had always seen these sparrows. A man coming towards me from the other direction saw my camera and excitedly told me that I could get great photos further along where the terns were roosting for the day. He was not a birder and was clearly bowled over by the experience of seeing hundreds of birds suddenly take off into the air on some unheard cue, then settle back down again. It's also amazing how they can fly in perfect formation with each other, turning the same way in an instant.

It was very windy out on the point where some metal benches had been erected for viewing. But cold though I was, I was fascinated by watching the show that the terns were putting on and also by the chance to see so many other shorebirds from this one spot. The terns were making a terrible racket as they took off and settled back down several times. While the takeoff was a scramble as the top picture shows, the birds being alarmed into flight, the landing was more carefully controlled with each bird landing just so far from his neighbor and all facing into the sun and wind. Some cormorants quietly lined the edge of the flat the terns were settled on with the air of being above all the ruckus. A man came along who lost his hat in the wind and when he went down into the forbidden area to retrieve it, the birds rose into the air one more time but this time they did not come back.

I moved on to the path that led to the flood control channel thinking I had seen more than enough for one day, but I was so wrong. The channel was full of ducks. I had not expected to see many ducks. It was like greeting old friends. I am a little rusty especially when it comes to ducks. The names swirled around in my head as I remembered them one by one.

Here is a listing of all the species that I saw. There were 35 in all.

Elegant Tern
Royal Tern
Caspian Tern
Snowy Egret
Great Egret
Great Blue Heron
Pied-billed Grebe
Eared Grebe
Western Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant

Brown Pelican
Ring-billed Gull
American Coot
Red-breasted Merganser
Hooded Merganser
American Wigeon
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Green-winged Teal

Surf Scoter
Lesser or Greater Scaup
Ruddy Duck
Black-bellied Plover
Western Sandpiper

Short-billed Dowitcher
Marbled Godwit
Long-billed Curlew
Greater Yellowlegs
White-crowned Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow

And last but not least the American Avocet in breeding plumage. (See those lovely red necks? They would be plain white in the winter.) I had walked all the way around from one side of the channel to the other to get a closer look at some avocets and then discovered two more right by my car in the parking lot which once again proves the first rule of birding: the best birds are always by the parking lot!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Gotta Move!

My road to good health actually started with exercise, not my diet. I had always exercised in one form or another starting with ballet when I was in my twenties. (Yes, I started when I was 18, too late to have a career. I only took up the violin because my mother wouldn't let me take ballet when I was younger. If anyone is keeping count of my revelations, this is number 3 at least.) I then moved on to Yoga as it was presented by Richard Hittleman. My husband and I did that program together although the Royal Canadian Air Force Exercise Plans for Physical Fitness routines were his favorites. (As he got older, it was more of the former and less of the latter.)

I switched to the Time/Life series of routines in Getting Firm in the late 80s along with plain old running in place for 20 minutes. I added weights to the routines including a 17 lb. bar which made them difficult for me and so it was easy to find excuses not to do them. By the year 2000, I was down to only once a week when I decided it was time for another change. I was also getting fat and very stiff all over. Hours and hours of playing the violin leads to sore necks, and backs, stiff shoulders, and tendinitis in the hands, wrists, and elbows. In those days, the concept of musician as athlete had not been realized yet.

OK, I thought. Let's find something that is gentle, fun to do, and not so hard that I won't want to do it every day. If there's one thing that playing a musical instrument teaches you it is that a little practicing every day is much better than several hours only once a week. Since dance was my passion, I decided to go back to routines that dancers do to stay in shape—Pilates, Lotte Berk, The Bar Method, and Yoga. I went out and bought a bunch of DVDs and some new sexy exercise clothes and I was on my way.

I now own about 62 exercise DVDs, 18 VHS tapes, and a couple of CDs you listen to as you work out. You can even download some mp3 Yoga routines from the Internet. And that doesn't count the ones I have given away to my daughter because I wasn't using them any more. I didn't want to get bored and buying a new routine every now and then keeps up my interest. I pop a different one into the player every day and work out in the comfort of my own home. If I had to drive to a fitness club every day, I wouldn't do it. Here are some of my current favorites:

The Bar Method by Burr Leonard. Unfortunately, she has created only two DVDs.

Lotte Berk. The Bar Method is actually a West Coast version of Lotte Berk which is taught in New York.

Stott Pilates. Just about anything from Moira Stott Merrithew is good. The later routines tend to be better than the early ones. Pilates matwork is actually quite difficult as Pilates himself presented it. Moira adds some steps in between that makes getting to the final goal easier.

Yoga and Pilates by Gaiam. I especially like the videos by Seane Corn and Suzanne Deason. Suzanne has a series that always includes the words " for weight loss" in the title, but I think they are good routines for anyone.

And for more traditional calisthenics and aerobics, Karen Voight. Karen's routines are very dance-like and very original even though they are traditional moves—squats, lunges, etc.

The routines can last from 20 to 60 minutes and there are routines for early in the morning or late in the evening. If all you have left is 15 minutes before going to bed, there is something for that, too. I enjoy working out to music and having the video on the TV screen in front of me keeps me focused on good form and relieves me of having to keep count (bo-ring!). I alternate routines so that I get some stretching one day, aerobics the next, and isometrics or weight lifting the day after that. I try not to work the same muscle groups too hard two days in a row although most of the routines are well-rounded and get a little of everything. Whatever I feel like doing is what I do. Nobody pushes me to go further than I want to go. That's how I keep myself from getting injured.

A friend asked me how I could be sure I was "doing it right." Well I guess I'm not 100% sure. Most of the videos explain the proper form very carefully, though. But the main idea for me is to get moving!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Beethoven's Fifth or A Musician's March Madness

I went all out for last night's symphony concert and now I am all in. We played Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, that most popular but much abused piece of classical music. It is considered by some to be "an old warhorse" but in its day it was very avant-guarde and even revolutionary. It had a powerful impact on the music world of the 19th century and the effects are still being felt. Beethoven was the right person at the right time who propelled us into the modern world musically speaking.

We play and hear this work so often that we have become jaded and don't realize what a powerful work it was and is anymore. The first four notes have become almost a parody for "fate." As it happens I have been listening to Robert Greenberg's lectures (from the Teaching Company) on various musical topics and have been surprised by how often Beethoven's Fifth comes up. Recently I was listening to what I thought would be four lectures on Strauss's Death and Transfiguration when to my surprise, the first two of the four were on Beethoven's Fifth and Beethoven's mastery of thematic development. Greenberg does a wonderful job of making you hear this work with fresh ears, with the ears of a 1808 concert goer, a person who would have been very comfortable with Sonata Form, Minuet Form, and the Viennese Classical Style in general, and would therefore have been truly shaken up by Beethoven's innovations to these forms, especially in this symphony.

We had a guest conductor last night, Michael Hall (remember that name—he is a man with a mission), who in my opinion fully understood the depth of this work. For one thing he took all the repeats. (At least all the ones in our version of the printed music. See the Wikipedia article for a discussion of the Scherzo repeats.) He tried very hard to get us to make the contrasts between forte (loud) themes and chords to piano (soft) lyrical lines more dramatic, one of the things that makes Beethoven so difficult to play. You are always being jolted out of your comfort zone. And then there were his tempi...

I realized from those very first four notes we played that this was not to be a business-as-usual performance. Hall is a young and very intense guy, almost driven as I imagine Beethoven himself must have been. Rehearsals have been packed full of comments, ideas, and suggestions. Hall talks as fast as he asked us to play. Too fast, I thought at first, but when I checked the music with my metronome I discovered that he wasn't too far off from Beethoven's own metronome markings in the score. If anything he was slower, but only a tad. A lot of musicians feel that Beethoven, who added these metronome markings soon after the metronome was invented, but sometimes long after he had composed a piece, are way off the mark and they tend to ignore them totally. Not Hall.

Which brings me to why this is all madness. Along with the evening rehearsals—a pitiful three which lasted until 10:30 pm, we were also rehearsing and playing children's concerts in the morning (9:30 am) which in Los Angeles means a lot of freeway driving back and forth. This came for many of us after another series of rehearsals and concerts the previous week (and the one before that) with totally different programs. In the life of a free-lance musician there is just no time to work on anything in great detail, to savor the moment and reflect on what we are doing. The music flies by so fast, that when I encounter a piece again I sometimes ask myself, "Did I really play this before? I don't remember it."

Most of my colleagues are probably already at work on the next program, but I will be taking a short break to get my taxes done (and maybe get caught up on my knitting). Next up—Schumann's Spring Symphony.

Thursday, March 22, 2007


Every year I go bananas over the wisteria that blooms in the spring at Caltech in Pasadena, CA. Caltech is a small college of only a little over 2000 students but it is well-endowed and the campus is beautiful. For years, My husband and I have had tickets to the Coleman Chamber Music series of concerts that are played in Beckman Auditorium on the Caltech campus. We would often get there early in order to walk around the campus and admire the gardens. When I think that the wisteria that graces the walls of several buildings might be in bloom, I bring my camera along to take pictures. Thanks to digital photography, I can take as many pictures as I like, trying to capture the essence of the blooms in their clouds of purple.

This past Sunday's concert, when these photos were taken, featured the Takacs String Quartet playing three of my all-time favorite quartets—two by Beethoven, the "Harp" and Opus 131, and one by Shostakovich, No. 11. In fact, Opus 131 is my most favorite of all quartets, and I was gratified to read in the program notes that it was Beethoven's favorite as well.

It was a fantastic performance—"magical" is the word that Mark Swed used in his LA Times critique. Mr. Swed thought that the Takacs had a wiry tone and complained about the acoustics of the auditorium. Too bad he wasn't sitting up in the balcony with me. The sound was rich and warm up there and very present.

Beckman was built to accommodate lectures and carries the spoken voice quite well, which means that for music it is too dry. And because of its circular shape (like a circus tent), the sound bounces around strangely. Our first seats were on the floor and along the side. You could barely hear what was going on down there. It took years of experimenting and requesting seat changes before my husband and I discovered the very best acoustics were in the center of the balcony. The sound comes right up at you there. And the sight lines are very good, too. It looks like poor Mr. Swed had front row seats for Sunday's concert which can be a drawback in any hall. As the lady sitting behind me commented, "You can hear them breathe," when you are that close.


The farm stand is open! There shall be strawberries for breakfast again! There's no doubt that produce that has just been picked tastes best—even the beets.

I hated beets when I was a kid growing up. We had government hot lunches at school every day, which when I look back on it now were much more healthy than the pizza and tacos that are being served in the school cafeterias today. A frequent Thursday meal included beets—not sweet little baby beets, but the strong-flavored, full-sized, humongous mature beets. They got cold on my plate because I would eat everything else first which made them even less appealing when the nuns would force me to get them down. I swore that when I grew up I would never eat another beet as long as I lived.

When I saw beets on sale at the farm stand a few years ago I had to admit that they did look appealing, large leafy greens with red veins and stems and a burgundy red bulb at the end. To encourage buyers to take the greens as well as the bulb (most people ask them to cut the greens off), the proprietors of the farm stand posted this message on their chalk board, "Beet Greens, Very Tasty, Very Nutritious." I decided to give them a try, and the rest, as they say is history.

The greens look as though they might be tough, but when steamed or stir-fried, they become soft and tender similar to cooked spinach. The red stems are edible, too. You can cut them into inch-long pieces and stir-fry them also with a little onion, then throw the greens on top and cover the pan to steam everything together. When I buy the beets, I cut the bulbs off, leaving about an inch of stem and bag the bulbs and greens separately. The greens should be eaten right away, but the bulbs will last longer like any root vegetable.

I like to cook the bulbs by steaming them. Just wash them well and cut the root end off but leave the stems and steam them whole. Do not peel them. This will minimize the amount of red juice that will bleed out of them. You can do this if you have bought small ones, otherwise, cut them in half for quicker cooking. After they are steamed and tender when pierced with a knife (about 20 minutes for small ones, longer for larger ones), rinse them under cold water while you rub the skin off. It should slip off easily and the beet will stay hot inside. Then slice them and add a little butter and tarragon. Yummy!

This morning's LA Times has a front page article about Wolfgang Puck's plan to join the fight against animal cruelty, specifically farm animals (hooray!). In Puck's words, "Healthier animals taste better." And that is true. Grass-fed beef tastes much better than grain-fed, and organic, free-range chicken comes close to tasting like the chicken I remember from my childhood, although it is not there yet. (I wonder what will happen to the human race when there are no longer any people alive who remember what good food tastes like.)

Last summer I treated my brother and sister-in-law to a meal at Puck's flagship restaurant, Spago in Beverly Hills. On the menu was this "Beet Cake" appetizer. I realized that I have come a long way from that kid who refused to eat her beets when I found myself ordering this tasty treat!

Friday, March 16, 2007

Diet Update

I am really, really busy right now with concerts and my students, but I have still been reading and thinking about diets and nutrition. (Friends and especially my family say, "Uh, oh!" whenever I tell them that I have been thinking.) But I wanted to pass on to you a link to a recent blog by Dr. Michael Eades regarding the inhumane way pigs are raised for slaughter in this country. My daughter-in-law refuses to eat pork because of this issue. I happened to be reading Pollan's book (The Omnivore's Dilemma) during lunch when I came upon his description of why the pigs have their tails clipped. It sure spoiled my appetite even though I was not eating pork.

Please read the comments that accompany the blog entry. The people who wrote them have a lot of good things to say not only about the inhumane treatment of farm animals and where you can get locally-raised meat but also problems with eggs. Calling chickens who eat only vegetarian feed "natural" is absurd. Chickens, when given the opportunity, peck in the dirt for grubs and insects and these protein sources are a natural part of their diet. I would like to buy "free-ranging" eggs not just "free-range" eggs, but they are very hard to find.

Monday, March 12, 2007

More Bird Watching

Saturday I had to pick up my car at the shop and then drive it a bit. It had needed a new alternator and battery. Since it was a lovely morning, a bit foggy and cool, with the sun sure to break through eventually, I decided to take the scenic route around the south side of Palos Verdes and enjoy the ocean view. I stopped at the Trump Golf Course which has trails along the cliffs through areas that are being preserved. Go ahead and click on the link. You will see not only fabulous photos of the ocean view (click on Golf Course on the left and then on Slideshow on the right), but you will get an idea of the grandeur that Trump likes to portray. I notice that he has the same feeling as the Los Angeles/Anaheim Angels regarding name recognition. It's the Los Angeles Golf Club. Who the heck knows where Rancho Palos Verdes is?

Anyway, I had my binoculars with me, so I parked the car and went for a walk. The birds were very active here also and I was able to spot 16 different species all in the space of one hour! Unfortunately, I didn't have a camera with me, so I have no photos to show you.

The prize catch of the morning was a California Gnatcatcher, the little bird for whom all this land is being preserved. Thanks, Little Guy! He caught my attention by mewing like a small kitten. It was an adult male with a black cap in breeding plumage. He darted in and out of the chapparal (love that smell!) and gave me a good look at him.

There is a waterfall (man-made) that feeds into a series of ponds where ducks and coots have gathered for the winter. Most wild ducks have probably migrated north already, but a few will linger on. Some of the coots may even stay all summer and breed here. The only other duck in the water this morning was the Ruddy Duck. Most of the birds I saw were the drab brown females. The male gets a bright blue bill in the spring which is very striking. You can't miss it.

While I was watching the ducks and coots, a female Anna's Hummingbird came by and hovered over my head. I was trying to find the Killdeer that I could hear close to me, but maddeningly couldn't see. The hummingbird buzzed and swooped by my face a couple of times. She was clearly upset with me standing there. I was probably too close to her nest so I moved on.

Along the cliffs, I could see a pair of ravens and down on the rocks were several shorebirds, among them a Willet in breeding plumage which is something I don't see very often. Shorebirds usually migrate north early before they have had their spring molt. They have a very long way to go. They are the most travelled of all the birds that migrate. I also got a very brief look at a Spotted Sandpiper before he disappeared. The tail-bobbing always gives this one away. There were Double Crested Cormorants sunning on the rocks and a little flotilla of Western Grebes with their long white necks in the water. It's fun to watch the birds take a bath in the shallow sea water.

I was thoroughly enjoying myself but suddenly realized I wasn't giving the car the driving that it needed so I reluctantly headed back to the parking lot. Here is the complete list of species seen (birders are always making lists). An "H" indicates that I heard the bird, but didn't actually see it.

California Gnatcatcher
Anna's Hummingbird
Song Sparrow
American Coot
Ruddy Duck
Killdeer (H)
Red-wing Blackbird (H)
California Towhee
Common Raven
Spotted Sandpiper
Double-crested Cormorant
Western Grebe
Eared Grebe
Western Gull
House Finch

Friday, March 9, 2007


Baby C. and I went birdwatching this morning at the nature center near where he lives. Spring is certainly in the air and the birds were singing their hearts out. On our short walk, we heard and saw a Bewick's Wren and a California Thrasher, both expert singers. We also saw Acorn Woodpeckers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Scrub Jays, and House Finches. Most surprising of all, a Warbling Vireo is making a nest under the garage roof eaves just outside Baby C's front door.

In my backyard, the White-crowned Sparrows left town almost two weeks ago. That is very early for them. They didn't even sing to thank me for all the sunflower seeds I gave them before they left.

Just about everything that should be blooming at this time of year is blooming including my new arugula plant. That has been, in Kathy's words, a most satisfactory plant, providing me with leaves for my salads all winter long.

The redbud is putting on a spectacular display this year, as is the azalea.

And the freesias smell wonderful.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Diets in the News

I have been reading Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, which is in Dr. Mary Dan Eades words an "eye-opening, jaw-dropping expose" of the current state of our food industry. There is so much in the book to comment on that I hardly know where to begin. But others have gotten there before me, so here are a few new links to sites that have discussed Pollan and low-carb issues. I will try to explore some of the other issues the book brings up in future blog entries. Paleo or Low-carb is the diet to follow, but Pollan's big contribution is to examine the source of the food that makes up the diet.

The Last Atkins Dieter for January 30th and 31st talks about Pollan's article, mentioned here earlier, entitled, "Unhappy Meals," wherein he states, "Eat less meat." No, no, no. I'm sorry, but this is where he gets it wrong. Eat meat. There are so many good reasons why, but for starters here is a recent link to Dr. Michael Eades's blog on methionine (found in abundance in meat) and it's ability to reduce cancers and the general immune system boosting powers of sulphur-containing amino acids found in meat. (Carbs and fat have no sulphur.)

Which brings me to the March 6th entry at Weight of the Evidence, by Regina Wilshire in which she discusses today's news about the Atkins diet. The L.A. Times front-page article couldn't help negating the results of the study which found that low-carb Atkins dieters lost more weight than those on the Zone diet, or Dean Ornish's low-fat diet, or a diet following the U.S. nutritional guidelines called LEARN, first by saying that the subjects in the study re-gained some of their lost weight after the study was over (did they go back to their regular diets?) and by putting in a plug for the "healthful fats" found in peanut butter (!?!?!), legumes (like soybean oil, perhaps?), and vegetable oil (like corn oil?)

Again Eades has a fascinating blog entry that is linked to the methionine entry which discusses the roll of saturated fat in the process of ridding our bodies of free radicals. Look down at the bottom of the entry for March 2nd. As Julia Child used to say, "Butterrrh!" Or butter, coconut oil, and extra virgin olive oil, the trinity of healthful fats according to Dr. Mary Enig the fats expert lady.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Baby Raglan Cardigan


I finished the baby raglan cardigan today. It was made with the fingering weight merino wool yarn that I dyed myself. (See Fiber Fun Parts 1, 2, and 3.) The sweater was designed by C. Strohmeyer and the pattern is published in the Complete Book of Raglan Sweaters by Leisure Arts. The blue stripe and ribbing were done with Lion Brand's Micro Spun in Royal Blue. It's a very soft sports yarn that has a sheen to it. It makes a nice contrast with the wool. I decided not to block the sweater because I didn't want to flatten out the puckering at the eyelets.

The Leisure Arts books have very easy to follow instructions for the basic stitches and some very helpful suggestions for any problems that might come up. In this book it was suggested that you knit with a larger (or smaller) needle for the purl stitches if you are getting stitch gauge but not row gauge. I tried this with my Knit Picks Options interchangeable needles and cables, using a size 5 on one end for the knit rows and size 6 on the other for the purl rows. It worked!

I made the sweater in the one-year size so it may be awhile before I can show you pictures of Baby C. wearing it. He will be celebrating his six-month birthday on Thursday.


Sunday, March 4, 2007


I haven't written much about astronomy yet mostly because I haven't done any astronomy this winter. I haven't even gotten my scope out to look at the beautiful Orion Nebula which is up in the wintertime. But last Friday evening I did manage to get to the monthly meeting of the South Bay Astronomical Society. They always have a guest lecturer speak and the talks are quite good. We have the advantage in So. California of being able to draw on the huge scientific community that lives and works here for a wide variety of lecturers and topics of interest. The lecturers (and some of the members) come from JPL, UCLA, Cal Tech, as well as the many aerospace industry companies that operate in Los Angeles. Their topics range from astronomy itself and the operation of the equipment needed to do good astronomy to satellites, earth atmosphere, the Mars Rovers, quantum mechanics, and the Big Bang.

This month's lecturer was Dr. Nicholas Gessler, a professor at UCLA who teaches "Human Complex Systems" and is also an "amateur" meteorite collector. After a very brief history of man's awareness of meteors as rocks that fall from the sky, he explained to us what the various common categories of meteorites are and showed us photos of his trips to the dry lake beds of California, Arizona, and Nevada where he made his finds. Afterwards, he allowed us to come up and handle a few of the specimens in his collection some of which came from Mars and the Moon. You can view photos of what we were looking at on his Finds page. Just click on Aerolites on the left side of the page. (He needs to update his site as most of the other links do not work.)

To encourage us to go out and make our own finds, he gave us pointers on what to look for, what kind of equipment to use, and how to get our finds analyzed, recognized, and registered with the "Meteorite Committee" (I didn't know there was such a thing). He then sheepishly told us that we'd have to go farther afield than he did to find anything because he and his friends had pretty much wiped the local areas clean. I thought of trying to find a really nice clamshell at the beach.

Somehow I don't see myself traipsing out to the desert alone to spend hours looking for that special kind of rock. I'll be content to view the finds of others in a museum. Of course, you could also purchase your very own meteorite on E-Bay at the going rate of 20 cents a gram.