SOMETIMES, BIRDERS STRIKE OUT – Intrepids in Quest of Sandhill Cranes

Jeanette Birding Near the Delaware & Raritan Canal

Jeanette Birding Near the Delaware & Raritan Canal

Friends had seen the cranes.  The SANDHILL cranes.  In nearby Franklin Township.

Friends had seen them two days in a row!

Jeanette Hooban (One of The Intrepids) and I have never seen a crane.

Now, admittedly, in the pictures sent by friends from cell phones, those birds didn’t look all that impressive. Rather dowdy, even dingy, lumpen, although on tall legs — they were not what Michelin (Guides to gastronomic shrines in France) calls “Worthy of the Journey.”

But then, we’d never seen a crane.

Well, except in (the film) Winged Migration, but sandhills are not the ones who starred in that epic.

So we devoted an overcast Sunday to going on a cranequest.

End of the Trail, Rose and Other Gardens of Colonial Park, NJ

End of the Trail, Rose and Other Gardens of Colonial Park, NJ

Odd back roads tumbled us out in one of the most nightmarish developments I had ever seen.  It was like those prophetic films, such as 2001, in which man irrevocably pays ultimate prices for progress.

Scraped earth, denuded of trees and even of crops, McMansion “TownHomes” everywhere, without a shrub, without even being alternated for privacy.  A moonscape, but I wouldn’t insult the moon.

Somewhere near what I mockingly called “an enclave”, and then it turns out that’s the name of that place, coupled with my treasured (nearby but by means visible) Delaware and Raritan Canal.

The road of the cranes was only slightly removed from destruction in the name of construction.

Cranes need slightly cropped ex-cornfields.

There was one.

As we drove along, Jeanette and I began to wonder if we’d even recognize a crane, if we came upon them.

She decided they MIGHT look something like great blue herons, and we well know those stately birds.

Heron Giving Voice Brenda Jones


So Jeanette drove with infinite patience, the patience of a brain surgeon, slowly down, then up, then down and up again, the road of the cranes.

There may be nothing emptier than cornrows where there ought to be birds.



Finally, we rejoiced to come upon, not in the corn, but in the natural weeds and scrub that bordered the croplands, some sparrows, a few juncoes, two mouning doves, all busily gleaning seeds flung down, not by a farmer on his tractor, but by the wind in the plants that belong on that field.

Song Sparrow from blind Brenda Jones


So we drove away.

We thought we could find a back road along the backside of the cornfield.  Ha!  Everything up there belongs to those enclave developers.  And their hideosities are for sale “in the high $300,000s”, according to their industrial-strength sign, stuck in the bare earth.  A Mercedes turned into the Sales Office ahead of us, as we made our disbelieving way into this panorama of the future.

But Jeanette had stopped that car!  No, not to buy a condo.  To study a handsome, stately, piercingly gazing red-tailed hawk in a tree the developers had somehow overlooked.

With our magical optics, we could see the abruptly changed expression in that red-tail’s lemon-yellow eyes.  With a whoosh!, he was up and over, and o my! there was some forgotten grass on some lumpen ground.  The hawk ‘stooped’, (birder-language for zeroing on for the kill) and vanished behind a hummock.

red-tail lunch D&R Canal Princeton Brenda Jones


Jeanette said, impishly, “Shall we very slowly drive over there and watch it tear the prey from limb to limb?”

Listen, I’ll take any bird experience.

But before I could even nod, let alone verbalize, that hawk was back in the tree.

Raptorial fast food.

Because were there in the presence of his majesty, and there was no way we were leaving before he did, we then treated to a cloud of juncoes, flaring white petticoats.  And then, lo, bluebirds beyond counting!  They were so brightly blue and that almost-robin red, for they are cousins, and even the females so vivid, we decided they were halfway to indigo buntings.



The aforesaid developers had put in a scraggly array of rather meagre trees.  I hope they did it in early fall, not in November.  But these trees did not look grounded.

And across the road, near the raptor feast site, an array of handsome, tall trees lay scattered, dirt balls facing the road and the $300,000+ mchouses.  They looked like toys abandoned by a petulant toddler. They did not look like they are going to survive January blasts and worse, without having been put in the ground in plenty of time to establish strong roots.  Even so, the few scraggly trees were fine for the bluebirds, who merrily filled them, like bright Christmas ornaments, then float-coasted down to the ground for seeds or whatever. There surely aren’t any insects or worms about in this vile weather we’ve been enduring.

Not only that, a merry mockingbird crowned the tree like an angel, then flew to the top of one of the mcroofs.

Mockingbird at Sunset in Winter


Just then, ‘our’ red-tail took off in a zoom, rising effortlessly toward something we hadn’t noticed.  God forbid a field or a habitat should be left to the mice and the voles and the butterflies and the bees and foxes and maybe even a coyote or two, and some skunks, some raccoons.  Trails, even, so the people can get out of those “little houses made of Ticky Tack” which Pete Seeger so scorned, Seeger-the-prophet.



(what SHOULD be happening in the fields of Franklin Park)

No, there isn’t a field.  Well, yes there IS, actually.

A playing field.

With towering bleachers and blinding shiny metal poles taller then anything in the enclave, each one studded with equally blinding shiny metal hooded lights, that will ruin the nights of the people who attempt to sleep in the enclave.  Who have no idea how blinding such lights can be in the dark, nor how loudly players and fans will carry on under those lights…

Well, the hawk was nothing if not an opportunist.  No tree in New Jersey that I’ve ever seen is as tall as those lightning-blinding metal poles.  Straight to the top he flew, master of all he surveyed.  No prey would be missed by this master.

Jeanette and I went on over to the Colonial Park Rose Garden, to see what it’s like for roses in winter.

Entrance Rose Garden Colonial Park January 2015


Unusual.  Strangely beautiful.  Gripping sometimes, especially among fragrant herbs, some still green:Winter Green  Roses at Rose Garden Colonial Park January 2015

Winterberry Bounty Rose Garden Colonial Park January 2015


Julia Child Roses in Winter Rose Garden Colonial Park January 2015



Roses in Winter Rose Garden Colonial Park January 2015


But for this preservationist, who spends the majority of her time trying to convince people to appreciate and save natural New Jersey, it was winter in my heart.

Sure-footed mammal tracks Rose Garden Colonial Park January 2015


Opossum Track Rose Garden Colonial Park January 2015


When I beg you to do whatever you can to save wild New Jersey, on land and on water and in the air, I am NOT KIDDING!  Even though D&R Greenway has managed to save around 19,000 acres, folks, it is not enough.

We didn’t find cranes.

Our fear is that, next year at the time when their inner navigational systems compel them to that cornfield, it will have more $300,000+ dwellings and poor pitiful trees, and no nutrients for cranes!


Provencal Christmas Creche 2014

Provencal Christmas Creche 2014

Some of my NJWILDBEAUTY readers know that I lived the seasons round in Provence in 1987/88.  Around the time of my Thanksgiving birthday, all the excitement in the rues surrounding the Cannes Marche had to do with the Alsatian specialite, Choucroute Garnie.  Signs threaded the byways that circled the market, emblazoned, “LA CHOUCROUTE GARNIE EST ARRIVEE!!!”  (Choucroute means sauerkraut, and Garnie means garnished, as with meats.)

In the streets outside the market were imposing metal containers, in which the just-arrived sauerkraut with sausage masterpiece was enthroned and simmering.  In my halting French, with my midwestern-teacher’s accent, I managed to have the most interesting proprietor prepare a take-home container.  It was done with such pride, such ceremony, you’d have thought he was ladling with sterling onto heirloom china.  The proprietor steered me to the best local wine provider, also on that side-rue, so that they could give me the best Riesling to accompany his chef d’oeuvre.

At home, in my tiny, heatless Cannes apartment, I ladled out cabbage and sausages, carried it to the Provencal-quilt-covered table on my minuscule balcony.  I went back in for the Riesling and a wineglass.  I poured that nectar very slowly, watching it reflect the Mediterranean shimmering below.  It was warm on the November balcony.  A slight breeze ruffled the wild herbs from the garrigue which somehow thrived in my balcony window-boxes.  These wind-visits carried with them the essence of wild thyme and sage and rosemary, mingled with sea air.

I remember being surprised at how light the choucroute was, and that I liked the somewhat sweet wine that is its essential accompaniment.

In October, here, in 2014, I was suddenly overcome by choucroute nostalgia.  I called six brave friends, two of whom are our regions Ur-food-critics.  I told them, I have to do this.  I described the dish, which always loses everything in translation.  I said, “I’ve only tasted it once and made it never.  Would you come and eat it with me?”

Every single one said an eager yes.  One knew immediately, “I’ll bring rye bread.”  I’ve not been in Alsace so I’ve never asked why, but rye is the only acceptable bread with choucroute.  One agreed, bravely, to make a winemaker’s tart – specialty of the grape harvest in France.  It has a sweet crust, a custard filling, and is studded with what should be the ripest grapes of the current year.  We’re a little lacking in that particular ingredient.  The others volunteered to go to their favorite wine providers here, say “choucroute” and see what happened.

Heating the Riesling with the Spices and Herbs

Heating the Riesling with the Spices and Herbs

Sunday, December 14, was the day of the great choucroute challenge.  I’ve now dubbed my formidable friends, “La Confrerie de la Choucroute.”  (Not all my NJWILDBEAUTY adventures are outdoors…) My friends assembled promptly at 2:30, bearing their specialties.

The Table Awaits...

The Table Awaits…

We began with the sprightly German champagne from Trader Joe’s, Schloss Bieber.  With it, was served a hearty terrine from Brick Farm Market.  It was of pork and lamb — there wouldn’t have been lamb in the Alsatian version.  It was rosy and succulent, studded with fresh green pistachios.  Another dear friend had given me pickled fiddlehead ferns for my birthday, so we savored those instead of traditional gherkins and tiny pickled onions.

Brick Farm Terrine and Fiddlehead Ferns, taken by Faith Bahadurian

Brick Farm Terrine and Fiddlehead Ferns, taken by Faith Bahadurian

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, the choucroute simmered merrily.

Choucroute about to be put into oven

Choucroute about to be put into oven

It’s more of a technique than a recipe.  I’ll try to recreate it, because, with the help of the Pennsylvania Dutch Farm Market in Kingston/Kendall Park, this magnificent signature dish which absolutely defines that region can be successfully made in America.  And it’s not that hard.  Worrying about whether I might ruin it or not was far harder than just making it.

Buy meats at the PADFM — thick slab bacon, a ham hock, and knockwurst from the smoker right inside the front door.  Buy the plainest sausages (no apples, no chorizo, nothing trendy) — I bought sage and pork, and what I think they called brackwurst — it wasn’t white like the brafwurst I usually get there.  They were rough peasant sausages, and that is what’s called for.

Choucroute Meats on Royal Copenhagen, taken by Faith Bahadurian

Choucroute Meats on Royal Copenhagen, taken by Faith Bahadurian

Buy sauerkraut from the pickle-and-olive man — my recipe for eight called for three pounds, but that didn’t look like quite enough, so I did three and a half pounds.  I checked with him about rinsing the sauerkraut, which my American recipes required.  The French did not seem to get into that, but maybe they think everyone knows. I said, “I don’t want to ruin your wonderful sauerkraut,” as his (probably) grandson, with blonde hair yes in a Dutch boy cut was ladling my order.  “No!,” the elder insisted, “Rinse it!”

Choucroute with Spices

Choucroute with Spices – Dark Bits are Juniper Berries — essential item

I actually cooked the choucroute on Friday for three of the six hours it requires.  I just wanted part of it behind me.

Rinse cabbage and press to drain.

Saute four large yellow onions in bacon fat – I did this in large flat pan in oven with the slab bacon slices, so they rendered their fat and browned the onions.

Mix onions when golden but not dark, with cabbage.

Put layer of cabbage in bottom of crock pot or heavy casserole.

Put smoked ham hock in middle, and ring with knockwurst.  I should have had two of this hefty sausage, and could have used a larger ham hock.  But quantities are not the point here — marrying of flavors is all that matters.

Meanwhile, I was browning all the other sausages in bacon fat in a pan in the oven.  Then I cut those into chunks, but I had not cut knockwurst or ham hock.  I mixed the chunks with the rest of the sauerkraut and put that on top of the first layer and that ham hock and knockwurst.

The bacon slices were beautiful, like antique wood, wide and rich and dark.  I ringed the sauerkraut with them.

I couldn’t figure out, from any of the recipes, how the spices were going to infuse everything.  So I put them in the Riesling (for cooking I bought Ullrich Langguth Riesling from Trader Joe’s — “made from 100% very mature Riesling grapes — fruity, elegant, refreshing acidity” – says the label), in a saucepan and heated just to the simmer for about five minutes.  I poured that concoction immediately over the casserole.

My ingredients come from an array of recipes in French and in English — in effect, juniper berries are the heart of the matter.  I’ve just moved to Juniper Court, so this felt most appropriate.  Some recipes counted the berries and some measured.  You could say 2 tablespoons of juniper berries; 1 tablespoon each of whole black peppercorns and whole cloves or allspice.  Some recipes call for both – that might have been a bit much of that taste.  I put in 6 garlic cloves, cut very thin.  Cumin and coriander are usually part of this, and my new landlord, from India, tells me they help with digestion of meats.  For my recipe for 8, two tsps. ground coriander and two tsps. ground cumin were fine, not overpowering.  I bought those spices at Brick Farm Market, so they were very fresh.  I had inferior bay leaves — nothing equals Williams Sonoma bay leaf wreaths, and I don’t see them this year.  So I used six bay leaves.

This with a lid went into the crock pot on high until it boiled, and I don’t know how long that took; then on low until three hours had passed.  This went into the refrigerator when cool enough.

On Sunday, I took it out at noon and put it in the oven at 350 until it boiled, then on 225, until we reached the three-hour point.

Willm Riesling, from Faith Bahadurian, by Faith Bahadurian

Willm Riesling, from Faith Bahadurian, by Faith Bahadurian

One friend brought Willm Alsace Riesling Reserve, 2012, which was perfect; another brought Alsace Domaine Bott Freres Riesling 2010, which was also perfect.  Some Rieslings are fruitier than others.  I am no connoisseur, but they did blend and enhance with perfection that astonishing choucroute.  The other bottle of Riesling we did not open — it is Alsace Riesling Hugel.  All three wine purveyors were delighted to play the choucroute game.

Choucroute with Bacon

Choucroute with Bacon

If you want to read an expert on this, check out that marvelous chronicler, R.W. Apple, on his family’s choucroute traditions. I am no expert.  Pardon my inadequacies, as I even attempt to convey the savory, subtle, astonishingly light and digestible, beautifully melded dish that filled our plates.

Choucroute and Meats, Rye Bread, by Faith Bahadurian

Choucroute and Meats, Rye Bread, by Faith Bahadurian

Filled our plates twice, because everyone went back for seconds.  You couldn’t taste those spices individually — alchemy had occurred.

The meats had given over all their succulence to the whole, and yet were tasty and somehow almost airy – when I’d frankly expected heavy.  The choucroute gleamed and glistened, fairly leapt off the plate, after all those hours of cooking.  I couldn’t believe it.



Americans frequently add tart apples, and that would be good.  I didn’t do so because I wanted to be authentic.

French, not only Alsatians, add steamed small potatoes, red bliss i would think, in this country.  I didn’t do that because I felt it would be too heavy.

These friends are not trenchermen, but wondrously supportive, even outrageous women, perfectly willing to take this chance together.  I don’t know if I’ve ever seen them have seconds, come to think of it.

One of us brought the Alsatian winemaker’s tart, which was rustic and beautiful, and carried the theme through delightfully. However, American grapes can’t hold a candle to French, and don’t let anyone tell you they can.

Winemaker's Tart by Pat Tanner, Sugarplums by Faith Bahadurian, taken by Faith Bahadurian

Winemaker’s Tart by Pat Tanner, Sugarplums by Faith Bahadurian, taken by Faith Bahadurian

Faith Bahadurian, who has provided the actual dinner photos, brought sugarplums, which she had made herself!  I’ve never had, but only heard of, sugarplums.  Tiny, rich, dark, intriguing, even a little dangerous (cognac?), they were the perfect climax.  Now we all have ‘visions of sugarplums’.

Visions of... made by Faith Bahadurian, photographed by Faith Bahadurian

Visions of… made by Faith Bahadurian, photographed by Faith Bahadurian

Now imagine, since in Alsace they would have finished the meal with plumliwasser, kirsch, or eau de vie du poire, my visit to the industrial strength Vingo on Route 27, seeking these forms of finale…To their credit, though they clearly thought I was making this up, they checked their computers.  Lo, a young man ultimately arrived bearing a beautiful, jewel-like round and charming bottle:  Belle de Brillet — don’t you love it? – and belle she is.  Liqueur Originale.  Poire Williams au Cognac.  It is not firewater-clear, as is kirsch, as is eau de vie du poire.  It seems that Brillet has been crafting this elixir since 1850.  It is the color of the most luminous honey, only transparent.  I have little Swiss liqueur glasses, from my long-ago marriage. They were our centerpiece.  And they held the Belle de Brillet, to accompany our winemaker’s tart.

I still cannot get over the changes in the sausages, how they enhanced the cabbage.  I have to face it — choucroute is about one of my most cherished concepts — transformation.

And I’m here to tell you that every aspect of this, from light-bulb through phonecalls through research through talking with the sausage lady, the ham hock lady and the sauerkraut man, was a joy.  The cooking was so much easier than I thought, and the sharing paradise.

I didn’t take enough pictures as I was serving.  My guests did.  If they can send them in a form I can save and insert into NJWILDBEAUTY, I’ll do so.

Meanwhile, savor this with us in spirit, and go out and put together your own.  All of the chat rooms I read on this subject seem to imply you can’t go wrong.