Backyard Highland Park: Spring!

tufted titmouse flying
Seems like all winter I’d be filling the bird feeder or taking the camera to walk in the snow and take photos of backyard birds. Then in the past month it’s gotten warmer and green items are pushing their way up in the ground. I probably won’t get such great shots of a tufted titmouse flying in the coming months because I’ll be more focused on my garden.

rose of sharon bud
I won’t be seeing the wintry look of the rose of sharon dried buds much longer.

brown hare
One “fellow” we have been seeing in our backyard on occasion is this cute hare. He mostly seems to nibble just a bit on grass or compost, then hurries on his way. My neighbor says he sees the hare in his backyard as well. He suspects the turkey vultures that sometimes fly overhead may be eying the hare for dinner. (Update: note – Michelle and Eileen don’t think the vulture is after the bunny. So relax, please).

hare brown

brown hare stares
Can you please go tell that turkey vulture to go eat a rat instead – our hare is just too cute!

magnolia and forsythia
It’s the time of year when you see white magnolia buds in front of yellow forsythia (the white magnolia tree is in my neighbor’s backyard). If you walk to North 8th in Highland Park, you’ll see many pink magnolias in bloom (part of the best of Highland Park spring – though I also recommend the cherry trees on North 4th).

magnolia buds against forsythia backdrop
What have you been seeing in your backyard or neighborhood?

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Mushroom Paté

Mushroom Paté with onions and walnuts
Mushroom Paté with onions and walnuts


  • 1/2 lb. mushrooms
  • 1 large onion
  • Olive oil (or coconut oil)
  • 1/2 cup walnuts
  • Sea salt
  • Spices or dried herbs (I used dried thyme once, fresh thyme another time – time for a thyme joke?)

Suitable for Passover or any time of the year one wants a tasty, easy to make spread, this mushroom paté (or mushroom dip or mushroom spread) can be made in a short time. Chop then sauté the onion in olive oil (add salt at the cooking point so it will absorbed well and not be so salty if added later). Add the mushrooms, chopped into pieces. Put the onions and mushrooms in the food processor, then add the salt and dried herbs. Turn on the food processor until the mixture is smooth. Add the walnuts – you can chop the nuts finely or in bigger chucks, as you prefer. Klara Levine, who gave me this recipe, suggested it should be the consistency of haroset.

Update in 2015: Klara says add the salt when sautéing the onions or mushrooms – cook salt into the food, never add at the end.

This was originally published on April 4, 2010. As an experiment, I am republishing it on April 9, 2015. Enjoy the rest of Pesach to all those who celebrate – and to those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, enjoy spring.

Burning Chametz – Jewish Photos for JPiX

gerber daisy plant
Does a gerber daisy plant brought outside after winter count as a Jewish photo?

What’s Jewish photo? There’s not really any clear explanation, but it could be inspired by Judaism, Torah, Talmud, Jewish history, Jewish culture … could also be nature.

A few years ago a blog carnival called JPiX was started. You can learn more and see past issues of JPiX. Recently, we decided to have another issue, so I will be hosting one – if you want to participate, please send your posts by April 26 (form is at the bottom of the JPiX page). You have to have a blog – this is a blog carnival, not a Facebook sharing.

Pesach (or Passover) is coming next week, and for a month (since the day after Purim for me) we have been getting ridding of all our chametz – bread, crackers, pasta – all sorts of foods made out of wheat, barley, rye or spelt. In the process, people often do spring cleaning as well, throwing out, selling or giving way old stuff. On Friday we get rid of everything completely, and we eat no more chametz until Pesach is over. Friday morning there is a ritual called biur chametz, the burning of chametz. Here is a photo from last year:
burning chametz bread plastic
Yuck, someone left in the plastic. That makes it a little less pleasant.

When I was young, we did biur chametz in our backyard. Now it is supervised by municipal officials, making sure everything goes smoothly. My brother once woke up with a rash on his face the first day of Pesach. My parents thought he had a sudden allergy. Turns out, he had probably burn some poison oak by mistake. And the rash got on his face. He got better, don’t worry.

After burning the chametz, we say a few lines: part of the prayer is to nullify any chametz we may still have in our possession.
chametz burning
One particular tradition is to save your lulav from Sukkot (which was half a year ago) and burn it with the chametz on Pesach. This is a photo of my son (on the left) doing just that:
burning lulav biur chametz

Now because I totally missed posting anything at all about Purim (and I want to show Jewish photos for JPiX, here is a photo of my daughter dressed as a spy:
Purim spy

And backwards to Chanukah, here is a Chanukah candle lighting scene:
lighting chanukah candles

If you are Jewish, what are you doing to get ready for Pesach? If not, have you ever seen biur chametz? Or people dressed in Purim costumes? Have a great spring – I’ll be sharing flower photos soon.

House Finches in Highland Park, NJ

house finch in tree
I don’t see house finches often in my backyard. However, when I look at the 2014 sightings of birds in Highland, Park, New Jersey, I see that the house finch is spotted each month. One task I have been started to work on is moving that list of birds into WordPress – the 2015 birds are now here. Joanne Williams has been sending me that spreadsheet of birds since 2001 – before WordPress existed (or maybe when it was a baby – see WordPress history). For various reasons, some environmental pages will gradually be making their way to WordPress. But I digress – back to house finches in Highland Park, NJ.

When you see what looks like a finch, you might think: is this a house finch or a purple finch? Seems house finches are more common. I did love this description of a purple finch: ‘The Purple Finch is the bird that Roger Tory Peterson famously described as a “sparrow dipped in raspberry juice.”’

finch and sparrow
The above photo shows a house finch on the left and a sparrow on the right. They do look a bit similar – bottom coloring, head size and beaks.

I learned from this 1968 article that a house finch can also be called a linnet. If you scroll down, you will find a common on food of the house finches in Denver: “The House Finch will eat almost anything vegetable, though it prefers seeds, and experiments with different seeds show that hemp is selected to the exclusion of all others.”

According to the Cornell All About Birds site, the house finch is a new introduction to the NorthEast: “The House Finch was originally a bird of the western United States and Mexico. In 1940 a small number of finches were turned loose on Long Island, New York, after failed attempts to sell them as cage birds (“Hollywood finches”). They quickly started breeding and spread across almost all of the eastern United States and southern Canada within the next 50 years.”

As we have had two March snowstorms (which is highly unusual for New Jersey), I’m sharing some snow photos, too:

Purim in the snow
The above photo of our backyard was taken the day after Purim (March 6).

snowstorm   20150320_snowstreet

The above two are from this past Friday’s snowstorm (March 22).

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Dark-Eyed Junco Name – Bird of Reeds

junco with two feet in the snow
Continuing with my discussion of bird names – these dark-eyed beauties called juncos showed up in my yard after our biggest snowstorm (9″ in New Jersey, perhaps). Funny thing about juncos is they wander around the ground, not hopping about in the branches. See, even in the snow they prefer exploring what’s down.

junco on his feet
On a site called Beauty of Birds, I learned this about the junco name:

The species’ Latin name “hyemalis” translates into “winter;” and the genus name, Junco, roughly means “bird of bushes or reeds” – referring to their preferred habitats.

On the Wikipedia article for Junco: “Despite having a name that appears to derive from the Spanish term for the plant genus Juncus (rushes), these birds are seldom found among rush plants, as these prefer wet ground, while juncos like dry soil.”

Well, my juncos seemed to be OK hopping along on top of the snow. They are sometimes called snowbirds, but I think that’s usually a reference for flying south, *away* from the snow.

junco on ground of snow
Some of the photos I took of the junco came out rather dark because the bird was down in the shadows. I might have changed the ISO to be a little higher on the one above, so it looks a little brighter.

junco by fence
On the Wikipedia article specifically for dark-eyed junco, it says they are related to the sparrow.

Not to confuse, but to give some contrast, here’s a photo of a tufted titmouse on our backyard tree when the tree was totally full of snow:
tufted titmouse in the snow

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Tufted Titmouse Name – Songbird in Chickadee Family

tufted titmouse
A tufted titmouse came to visit our backyard last week.

tufted titmouse in tree looks up
I recently talked about the source of the name of cardinal bird. I decide to look up the name of the tufted titmouse. The answer is fairly simple, as noted on this BirdNote site:

The name descends from two ancient Anglo-Saxon root words — “tit,” from a word meaning something small. And “mouse,” from a word applied to any small bird, as well as that little rodent.

tufted titmouse up close
I feel fortunate that when I fill my bird feeder, I occasionally get visits from tufted titmice (yes, that is the plural).

tufted titmouse by the bird feeder

Here is a nice description of a tufted titmouse on the Cornell All About Birds site:

A little gray bird with an echoing voice, the Tufted Titmouse is common in eastern deciduous forests and a frequent visitor to feeders. The large black eyes, small, round bill, and brushy crest gives these birds a quiet but eager expression that matches the way they flit through canopies, hang from twig-ends, and drop in to bird feeders. When a titmouse finds a large seed, you’ll see it carry the prize to a perch and crack it with sharp whacks of its stout bill.

There are quite a few historical descriptions of the tufted titmouse on this Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds article from 1947, but my favorite note is at the end: “On the feeding shelf the tit seems to be the dominant character; only the blue jay refuses to make way for him. ”

Getting back to the Tufted Titmouse name, I found a bit more on this 10,000 Birds What is a Titmouse article: “A bird in the genus Baeolophus is neither a mouse nor…the other thing. The word titmouse descends from the Old English terms, tit (any small animal or object) and mase (small bird), essentially meaning one small, small bird.”

Then that article starts to get a bit funny: “Though there is nothing inherently prurient about this critter’s cognomen, it’s within the realm of possibility that even the mere utterance of it inspires twittering and naughty feelings in some individuals, and is thus best avoided. It is worth pointing out that titmice belong to the family Paridae, an expansive international clan made up primarily of what we call “chickadees” in the states but are known as “tits” in the Old World. What do you expect of those decadent, debauched Europeans?”

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