A holiday treat from Elk Lake Resort

December 19, 2014…overcast with little snowflakes dancing in the air; 30 degrees.
Happy Holidays from Elk Lake!
Things have settled into a dull roar since Jake and I took over Elk Lake Resort last June so it is high time I write a blog post.
It’s only fitting that my first post as Lady of the Lake is a holiday recipe.  This recipe come to me from my mom and evokes memories of snowy Iowan winters when school had been cancelled.  My mom was a teacher so a snow day was just as special to her as it was to us kids, and it always got turned into a holiday of sorts.

Caramel Corn!  This is not like Cracker Jacks or any other industrial made candy-coated popcorn…this is the real deal.  Caramel that is buttery and crunchy, coating clusters of popcorn and peanuts.  Just the right balance of sweet and salt and addicting enough to make your teeth ache in protest from eating too much.
Don’t try using fake butter in this recipe…you will be disappointed.  The first time I made this recipe and sent some to my mom in her Christmas box she asked, “What recipe did you use??  It was so good!”  She was amazed that the only difference between her caramel corn and mine was the swapping out of margarine (see original recipe) for real butter.
Hint: make sure your bowl is big enough for all the popcorn.  It’s a bit frustrating to stir in the caramel and end up with your counter and floor covered with popcorn.  And by the way…I always double this recipe!

Mom’s Caramel Corn

Boil for 5 minutes:

1 c. brown sugar
1 stick butter
¼ c. light corn syrup

Remove the boiling mixture from the heat and mix in (in order):

½ t. salt
¼ t. baking soda
1 t. vanilla extract

(This mixture will get very foamy…that’s because of the baking soda…and is a necessary chemical reaction to make the caramel topping just right.)

Pour 1/3 over 4 quarts of popped corn (and peanuts if you'd like) and gently mix.  Do this two more times until the caramel is completely coating the popcorn.  Try to be gentle so that you don’t break up the popcorn too much.
Bake at 250 degrees for one hour, stirring every 15 minutes to dry the caramel.  Sampling during each stirring is recommended. (!)

Caramel corn is not just for the holidays.  If you’d like to try some of this yummy treat when you come out for a visit, let me know and I’ll whip up a batch.  But you’ll have to share.

Lady of the Lake (aka Laurel)


Sharptailed Grouse

I commonly run across Ruffed and/or Blue Grouse on my summer hikes around Elk Lake. Occasionally I'll even stumble across one in the winter. While interesting birds, these sub-types seem the epitomy of their species - a bit dumb, a but clumsy, a bit 'obvious'.

Completely unlike their cousins - the Sharptailed Grouse. I only see Sharptailed Grouse in the winter (although according to the habitat maps they summer in our area). Furthermore, these birds are so un-grouse-like in their actions, I would not have assumed them to be in the same family. They appear smart. They are quick and graceful. And, they are extremely flighty! Thus I have not ONE decent photo after 10 years!

Thankfully others have had greater success! Thus, ALL the bird images in this post are courtesy of others. Since my posts are always directed by my photos and experience, you may be wondering, what's my point? Why a post on Sharptailed Grouse if I have no photos of the birds?

I actually have a really good answer for that question: I had a Sharptailed Grouse 'experience'! And, I have a few photos to prove it! No birds - although I saw and heard them (that is something else unique to Sharptailed Grouse - in my experience they have always been more vocal than their dimmer witted cousins).

So, the story goes like this: I was snowshoeing on a bitterly cold afternoon soon after our lastest good snowfall. This, of course, means I was working my butt off (to be honest, 'that' is a real good reason to snowshoe!). I had worked my way through an open meadow and into a stand of heavier timber when, suddenly, from all sides sprang up at least a dozen Sharptailed Grouse.

Now, stumbling across them on a snowshoe trek is not unusual. Seeing a few together is also not unusual. But these birds were not only in heavy timber (which I had never seen before), but I found what they left behind to be incredibly interesting and educational. So. . .that is what this post shares.

Once the birds had completed their hasty exit, I started looking for clues as to 'what' they had been doing. They had, as far as I could tell, all flown from ground level. This might be moderately heavy timber, but there was still a LOT of fresly fallen (i.e. deep and powdery) snow. Furthermore, it was COLD (-15 at that moment). My first thought: some special food source nearby. I certainly did NOT expect what I found for my first clue: a hole!

The holes were all over - and they weren't really holes, they were tunnels! Yet, foot tracks on top of the snow proved the birds were not 'sinking' into the snow (thus, tunneling until they could reach the top again). Furthermore, not one of the tunnels reached bare ground - so they were not tunneling for food. And, based on the tunnels' width, the birds appeared to have merely 'walked' into them (not extra wide as if they used their wings to push themselves through the snow). And, the final clue - no signs, anywhere, of these tunnels having been created by anything but the birds!

In fact, as this last photo shows, it appears the bird took flight 'at the tunnel's mouth' - in other words, it came out of the tunnel and flew. Therefore, it had been IN the tunnel when I came into the vicinity. This would explain why I was able to get so close (being in their tunnels, they couldn't hear me until I was nearby). But, it still did not explain the tunnels created by a bird!

Always curious, I couldn't leave it alone. WHAT on earth were these birds doing? WHY? Why had I never found this kind of thing before (after all, even with the birds, the tunnels would remain for awhile)? So, I did what every average American does today when looking for answers: I Googled it! And. . .I found an answer. But, first, a little about these interesting game birds.

Sharptailed Grouse are found in many North American prairies seeming to prefer savannnah type grasslands with scattered shrubs. These birds, like the Sage Grouse, are known for lekking (dancing) displays during mating season. The photo above shows a male distributing some of these dance moves.

Mature birds weigh between 1 3/4 and 2 1/2 pounds. The males have a distinctive yellow 'comb' over their eyes and a violet display patch on their neck (see above). The females are smaller with regular horizontal feather markings and no yellow comb or purple display spot.

Okay - so now I knew what they looked like (although I'd already seen them several times in flight). Now, however, my suspicions were confirmed. I had seen Sharptailed Grouse. But. . .my questions remained unanswered.

On to the next possible clue: what do they eat? Apparently they are ground feeders in the summer and tree feeders in the winter (seeds, berries, buds, insects, etc). That, too, confirmed what I had seen for, prior to this experience, I had always seen these birds in trees. But, it did not explain their presence 'here', nor the snow tunnels they had created.

It took a couple of tries before I found a website which provided answers. According to Wikipedia, Hamerstrom and Hamerstrom (1951) and Gratson (1988) discovered that "as the snow depth increases, habitat selection shifts from cropland and prairie to shelterbetls and woody vegetation." So now I knew why they were in the trees. Yet the next sentence contained my 'real' answer. "One habitat change seen. . .was grouse would select large snow banks to burrow into, to keep warm during cold nights."

It wasn't night - but it WAS cold. Thus, obviously, these birds had moved into the trees for shelter and burrowed (tunneled) into the deep fluffy snow for warmth. Hmmm! Now I felt really guilty for driving them back out into the cold. Thankfully, that day, there were lots of trees filled with fluffy piles of snow in which they could relocate!

And you thought winter at Elk Lake was boring!

Lady of the Lake


Eagle Lunch

Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, Fish Hawks (Ospreys), Red Tail Hawks, Northern Harriers, Swainsons Hawks, Great Grey Owls, Great Horned Owls, Burrowing Owls - Just about any raptor found in the Northwest can be found in the Centennial Valley. For this reason, many consider the valley to be the best place to view raptors in the lower 48. Certainly at Elk Lake we enjoy many visits from various beautiful large winged friends.

By late fall, many have moved to better hunting grounds. Not so the eagle pair who nest nearby. While we rarely see their fledglings this late in the season, the parents can be spotted perched atop tall trees or riding the wind current above the lake.

This year, however, the ice came early. An ice drill and a warm constitution are all the extra winter gear needed by human ice fishermen. Lacking these accoutrements, the eagle must leave or find another food source.

This particular pair seemed to have no problem taking the second option. One day they were dining of fish and muskrat, the next they were feeding on their cousins - feathered fowl.

It just so happened we caught a Bald Eagle and a Western Grebe on the freshly formed lake ice late one morning. At that point the Grebe was still very much alive. The eagle was hovering over it. Based on the distance to the nearest open water and the birds' actions, we assumed the eagle had frightened some ducks into flight (we have seen them do this numerous times by swooping low over a group of waterfowl) then taken this one out in the air.

This is certainly possible because nearly 28% of an eagle's diet can consist of birds (more on that to come) - and 7-8 % of the birds consumed are waterfowl. However, when you consider an adult grebe weighs in at about 30% of a Bald Eagle's weight, that is still amazing (until you realize Bald Eagles have been known to take GEESE)!

Unfortunately I did not have my big lens with me. So, we hurried back to the house, grabbed the lens, and returned to watch the action.

By the time we returned, the deed was done - the grebe was feeling no pain, and the eagle was enjoying his dinner. However, the action had moved a few hundred yards north which made it clear the Mr. Eagle had 'carried' the grebe (in flight) at least this far.

Always an opportunist, a bold Magpie, who had obviously been watching the action from a safe distance, invited himself to dinner. The next few shots catch their interaction!

After harassing the Mr. Eagle awhile, the Magpie decided a little caution might be the wisest course of action. So, as the eagle screamed his resentment, the Magpie flew to yonder tree to await the scraps.

Now for the punchline: A couple days later, I spotted a dark spot on the ice out in the bay. With the help of binoculars I could identify it was likely another dead duck - with an eagle perched on top. Thus this story had the same players - dead duck, feeding eagle, and pesky Magpies (I could see two hanging around not far from the eagle), but it had a TOTALLY different ending!

As I watched, a Magpie boldly landed a few feet behind the feeding eagle and began looking for scraps. Okay, repeat of a few days ago, I'm thinking. NOT! For, as I watched, suddenly a second eagle appears on the scene, snatches (and kills) the Magpie, then lands to consume her appetizer while awaiting lunch!

Just goes to show: In the wild you *could* be the eater - OR - you *could* be an appetizer! And, of course, it also goes to show you never know what you'll see next at Elk Lake!

Lady of the Lake


Morning Moose

It has always been a special pleasure to look out my window and find some of our resident wildlife hanging around the yard. Perhaps that is because I have never found myself nose-to-nose with a Grizzly or Wolf! And, of course, no winter would be complete without an occasional moose visit. However, not until this year, have I ever looked out the window to find a moose cuddled up enjoying its cud within a few feet of my bedroom!

Of course the pre-dawn light did not permit a decent photo - and I refused to disturb his relaxation by flashing a bright light his way merely for the sake of a picture. So, when a 'crunch' 'crunch' broke the morning stillnes a bit later, I knew he was on the move before the humans (or the dog) made an apperance.

But a dog doesn't need his eyes to know a visitor has been tromping up his yard while he slept. So it came as no surprise the recently vacated moose bed was the first place Bo inspected when released from his kennel. "Hmmm," you can almost hear him thinking, "They're getting a bit cocky, sleeping this close to MY house!"

However, as big as they are, moose are mighty adapt at hiding. So, it took us all a little time to figure out where he'd gone.

Yet, they ARE big animal, and Bo is pretty efficient at locating critters. Thus in no time, he sounded the alarm. Sure enough, there is our moose. Oh! Make that THREE moose! Where did you come from?

Left to herself, I suspect this cow would have been quite content to give Bo her 'best' side and call it even.

However, she was not alone. And, like any good mother, she appeared to consider 'safe' a better proposition than 'sorry'.

So, in obviously effective moose language she called her calf, and together they headed to off find a less noisy grazing ground.

Mr. Bull, on the other hand, appears completely unfrazzled by Bo and his noisy incantations. Fortunlately we were able to convince Bo his job was complete - and Mr. Bull was left to mosey his way out at his own speed.

Since this visit, so far as I know, we have had no moose cuddling up to the lodge. However, based on the tracks I'm seeing around, they aren't far away - just munching away around the corner or bedded behind the willows and out of sight!

Lady of the Lake


Moose Photo Opp

We all LOVE to see those upclose and personal photos - the ones which make us feel we could reach out and touch some illusive wild critter we usually only see from afar. However, sometimes I think we assume there is some kind of 'wizardry' or at least some extreme LUCK which only the *few* are allowed to possess.

I will admit: It is sometimes an accident - that being in just the right place at the right time. And, it does take a good lens (like anything else - the better the equipment, the better chance of a great final product). However, that is really most of what it takes.

The other day when hubby offered to make the cold trek across the field to attempt a capture of moose images, I sat in the warm vehicle and recorded his progress (and his object). Comparing the photos later, I realized together we had a captured the 'capturing' of a photo. So, when a Facebook fan recently commented on a closeup photo, I realized that process might be of interest to some of you.

Thus, what follows is the documentation of a photo opp - captured by two different lenses from two different perspectives.

It all starts by finding a subject. Sometimes that subject comes across your path offering only a few precious seconds to capture its image. However, in the case of Centennial Valley winter moose - usually if you aren't too aggressive, you can snap a few pictures - that is if you can find them. This one was fairly well hidden! Can you see here (this image is actually more magnified than your eye would actually see).

At first the cow just chose to ignore him. However, as he continued to approach, she deigned to give him a look.

NOTE: Whenever we attempt to photograph wildlife, our FIRST concern is to not scare or irritate them. Thus, while, as you will see, this moose gave way to hubby's pressure, he never pushed in close enough to cause her to exhibit any signs of irritation or fear.

Moving slowly and quietly and avoiding direct eye contact, he continued to approach her bed. Obviously she knew he was there. Yet, just as obviously, she is not overly anxious about his presence.

Here he stopped to take the first picture. As you can see, she is still quite unconcerned, cuddled down into her frosty bed.

As he moved in and manuevered for a grass-free face shot, she finally decided he was too close. Standing she presented him with her best side (or maybe she's just making it clear what she thinks of him disturbing her nap)!

And then came the surprise - a calf hidden in grass so deep neither of us knew he was anywhere around until he stood. Obviously he is a bit more curious as to the identity of the two-legged critter approaching their bedding ground than his mother.

While the photographer grabs another closeup you can almost hear the calf saying: 'But, Mom, what is *that* thing?'

Another possible shot? Obviously he debates whether that is possible without bothering them further - and decides no. So, he turns to leave them to mosey off at a leisurely pace, obviously already forgetting the rude two-legged critter who nudged them out of their warm beds on a frosty afternoon.

And for all those who think hubby was really getting up-close and personal, here's a little perspective. My photos above were taken with a 210 mm zoom which brings everything closer. It also compacts the subjects so they 'look' closer together than they really are. For a little perspective: Your eye sees at about a 50 mm. This last photo is taken at 70mm. As you can see - there was still quite a distance between the photographer and his subjects.

And so ends another Centennial Valley photo shoot. While we don't always capture the images we want, we certainly can't complain about a lack of variety or beauty!

Lady of the Lake