Thursday, July 23, 2015

Boy Howdy, Plum Pandowdy!

It's been so hot around here that one of our fans finally conked out from exhaustion and was replaced with three new ones. The Pacific Northwest spent June and July smashing high-temperature records (13 days with temperatures of 80 degrees or warmer in June...8 days of 85+ in June...plenty of 90+ record high recorded in Walla Walla on June 28 of 113 degrees...that sort of thing).

Thanks to this scorching, it's looking a lot like September around here, with parched brown lawns and trees shedding yellow leaves and mountain ashes already flaunting bunches of orange berries. And it surely must have something to do with our ornamental plum tree producing a bumper crop of plums, probably for the first time in its life.

Ornamental plum trees are not bred to produce luscious fruit. They're just supposed to look pretty decked out in their frilly pink spring finery. Perhaps some quirk of timing in when the tree bloomed this year due to the heat caused more of its flowers to be pollinated, because it's pumping out plums by the bucketful.

The plums are perfectly edible, which is not the same thing as perfectly luscious. We haven't felt terribly inspired to pick them.

For one thing, our tree's branches are up very high, and we don't have the right sort of ladder to boost us safely up into the branches. For another, the fruit, while copious, is scattered throughout the crown, not easily situated for picking.

And gathering up the fallen fruit is a tedious and unproductive activity. The only way to do it without constantly stooping and looking like one of those drinky-bird toys teetering around the yard is to crawl on hands and knees, inspecting each grape-sized fruit for worms. Any that aren't infested with worms are bound to have burst open, because they hit the ground like water balloons. You can hear them crash from across the garden.

All that effort garners a few cups of puny plums, which, though resembling red grapes, lack that fruit's snap, pop, and zing.  They're mealy and mushy, with a seed that takes up about a third of the interior. Fine for jam, but pretty blah out of hand.

But I did have a nice bowl full of yellow plums from a friend. It was way too hot to bother making jam, but it's never too hot to make a fruit dessert to serve with vanilla ice cream. I flipped through the recipe books and settled on a plum pandowdy.

"Pandowdy" is one of those words that's fun to say but has murky origins. The recipe book claimed that the name came from the way the pastry was laid across the cooked fruit and then chopped into squares and pushed down into it--an action called "dowdying." I haven't been able to verify that anywhere. Though perhaps if you smash something that's literally an upper crust to bits, it becomes dowdy...?

I never got to the "dowdy" part, though, because I was impatient and made the classic mistake of not reading the recipe through before assembling it, so I ended up dumping some dry ingredients into the pastry that weren't supposed to go in because they were for the filling. Oops. There was no way it would ever roll out under a pin, so I just crumbled it into blobs and dropped it on the filling. Even dowdier than the original plan.

The end result was an extremely tart caramel-colored plummy dessert with mediocre chunks of pastry in it. Filling definitely needed more sugar, which could've been supplied by putting on a crumb topping instead of pastry--but a nice dollop of vanilla ice cream offset the tartness, so the pandowdy was history in a respectable amount of time.

It didn't inspire me to crawl around the garden scrutinizing fallen plums and collecting them for another recipe, however. I'm leaving them to the birds (robins particularly love fruit, and it's fun to watch them stab the orbs and shake them around before swallowing them), and to Luna, who's been joyfully hoovering them up for weeks. She is transported with joy that we have a snack-dispensing tree in the yard.

But for the resident humans, walking across the yard is like tramping around on a giant sheet of bubble wrap, and it'll be that way for a few weeks yet, judging by how many plums are still dangling from the branches. I must say, this ornamental tree looks extremely proud of itself.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Hush! A Thrush

Some birds are more often heard than seen.

The Swainson's thrush is a member of this shy chorus. Cryptically clad in buff and white, with a spattering of spots to break up its form, it slips quietly through trees and shrubs, keeping out of sight.

But when the male Swainson's lifts his voice in song, it's enough to make you feel as if you've been transported to some Arcadian idyll. The song is an ethereal upward spiral, sung not only at dawn but also throughout the evening, often until well after sunset. A haunting, ringing quality seems to make it hang shimmering in the air until the next trill rises. (You can listen to it here.)

Before this year, I'd only seen a Swainson's thrush once, and that was just because he was kicking up a storm rustling through leaves in a neighbor's yard uphill from my Seattle one in an area where a fence had fallen down. He gave me one startled look and vanished.

This summer, I have the privilege of watching a female Swainson's incubate her eggs in a nest perched on a conifer branch just a few yards from my office window in Cottage Lake.

She sits so patiently on  her tightly woven nest; on many days it seems she only moves to snuggle herself in more deeply. I often feel like bringing out a few magazines for her, and a little cup of coffee. With the recent scorching weather, though, I've observed her sitting next to the nest, letting the air keep the eggs warm. She prods the eggs with her beak now and then, testing their temperature and turning them over.

The male, however, is all over the place. He often flutters into the maple right next to the window to peer in at me. Or to give a thumping to the male robin who rashly lands on a branch in his domain. Sometimes he swoops through the spray of the hose when I'm watering the raspberry patch out front. Sometimes he perches on the shepherd's hook in the garden near the nest, looking like an expectant father pacing a waiting room in a 1940s movie.

The Swainson's thrush is such a lovely bird, it's a shame that it's got such an unimaginative name--the fate, alas, of so many birds. No offense, Swainson, but seriously? You already have a warbler and a hawk named after you. (Reptiles and fish totally luck out when it comes to names. More on that some other time.)

Regional names for this flutist of the woods aren't much of an improvement. According to the Audubon Encyclopedia of North American Birds, its nicknames include Alma's thrush (who's Alma?), olive-backed thrush (ho-hum), russet-backed thrush (yawn), and swamp robin (better, but rather limiting).

More interesting are the varied ways in which bird books render the thrush's skein of song.
photo from Wikipedia

"Song spirals upward, like whip-poor-will-a-will-e-zee-zee-zee, going up high and fine at end..." explains the Audubon Encyclopedia of North American Birds.

"Po po tu tu tu tureel tureel tiree tree tree," warble the thrushes in the Sibley guide, but only if they're in the Pacific; interior west and taiga birds tend to whistle "po rer reer reeer re-e-e-e-e-e" instead.

Naturalist William Leon Dawson, in Birds of California, describes this thrush as "a flitting shade and a haunting voice," and admits to difficulty in recreating the song in syllables, but shares other naturalists' versions:
weeloo weelo weeloeeewit-wit
govendy govindy goveendy
Well, wit-wit and weeloo and a govindy, too. Some authors, though, dispense with interpreting the song and go with the "everybody's a critic" approach:
"Those who have heard the olive-backed thrush singing an even-song to its brooding mate compare it with the veery's, but it has a break in it and is less simple and pleasing than the latter's." Neltje Blanchan, Bird Neighbors, 1922
"Its song, while perhaps not as beautiful as that of the Hermit Thrush, is better known to most bird-watchers..." Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region
"The throaty, gurgling song lacks the richness of the wood thrush's and the purity of the hermit's but is pleasantly musical." Richard Pough, Audubon Guides
Fortunately, Swainson's thrushes cannot read.

By Don Faulkner via Wikimedia Commons
They also make a wonderful call that sounds like a drop of water, often rendered whoit or quoit.

[We interrupt this twittering about thrush song for some breaking news. It appears the eggs may have hatched, as I thought I saw a tiny head and gaping beak protrude from the nest's edge before Mama Thrush stood over it. She has her wings spread out to shade the nest, as it's currently in full sunlight on a day shaping up to be a hot one.]

I have my fingers crossed for our resident thrushes. Their nest is built precariously close to the tip of a branch, rather than tucked closely by the trunk, and I fear that the day will come that a jay or crow takes note of it and dives in for a meal.

I know, I know, that's nature for you. I don't blame the jays and crows; I just hope it doesn't happen. The thrushes have been so single-minded  in raising their brood, parental intensity condensed to a single point in their black ink-drop eyes. I'd like to see their little ones fledge.

In fall, Swainson's thrushes leave the northwest and head south. Some migrate as far as Argentina. They fly at night, calling to each other, and if you listen in a quiet place, you can hear their notes twinkling down from the sky.