Ben displays his cowboy style during our annual blossom walk along the DuPont rail siding in Oakley on Sunday, Feb. 7. The hat is Glenn's, and Ben was only wearing it to humor his dad. Photo by Glenn.

Finding love in a cuppa joe

February 26, 2016: They say that kids learn by observing their parents, so how Ben became a die-hard coffee drinker, frequenting the local Starbucks with his friends on an almost daily basis, is somewhat of a mystery to us. At his age, we were both discovering that coffee wasn't some magical elixir that fueled everyone else's work and social hours. On the contrary, we found it a bitter brew that disagreed with both our palates and our digestive tracts, so we learned quickly to avoid it, preferring soft drinks such as Pepsi for our caffeine rush if and when it was needed.

To see any of these photos larger, or as a slideshow, view our Flickr gallery.


What better way to begin this month's photos than with a bakery box full of sweet treats. These are samples of the offerings at Doré French Bakery and Café in downtown Brentwood, where we stopped by Jan. 28 while Roni was on a work assignment. Tough assignment. Yes, they really did taste as good as they look. Photo by Glenn.


We bought a 2.0x teleconverter to use with Roni's Nikon in anticipation of a weekend bird-watching trip. This was just a test image taken in our backyard using the 500 mm lens. The ability to get super close to our subjects was what drew us to the camera accessory. Photo by Glenn.


We took the teleconverter for a test run at Big Break Regional Shoreline in Oakley the morning of Jan. 28. Roni has it trained on a hawk we saw sitting in a tree behind one of the houses that borders the park. Photo by Glenn.


This is how the hawk appeared through Roni's lens, which was zoomed all the way in with the teleconverter on. This is the equivalent of a 1,500 mm photo. Photo by Roni.


Birds weren't the only things flying above Oakley on Jan. 28. This formation of fighter jets was on a test flight as part of a Civil Air Patrol mission to defend the skies around the Bay Area on Super Bowl 50 weekend. Photo by Glenn.


Saturday, Jan. 30, finds us back at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex near Willows for an afternoon of bird photography. The weather was not the nicest, as is apparent from the large gray clouds coming our way. Snow tops the mountains to the west. Photo by Glenn.


Hungry goldfinches eagerly devour thistle seed in a feeder outside the Sacramento Wildlife Refuge visitor center while a white-crowned sparrow waits its turn. The birds were not the least bit concerned by the presence of humans. Photo by Glenn.


It's rush hour on the auto tour at the Sacramento Wildlife Refuge. Tourists park near the observation deck. That's our car at the front. Photo by Glenn.


Roni enjoys the salad she packed for our lunch at the refuge. We had homemade trail mix and some leftover tarts from the Doré French Bakery for our dessert. Yum! Photo by Glenn.


The bird viewing was sort of a bust. There were lots of snow geese to see along the auto tour, and many who came to the refuge this day were here specifically to see them. Photo by Glenn.


A lone ibis stands in silhouette in one of the ponds at the Sacramento Wildlife Refuge Complex. Photo by Roni.


A couple of pond turtles bask on a log at the wildlife refuge. This was taken with the teleconverter and the long lens on our Nikon. Photo by Roni.


We didn't make it all the way to Oregon as planned, but we did get to Corning, home of the famous Olive Pit, where we bought a few bottles of olives to take home. Photo by Glenn.


It was a long drive back home from Corning, so we stopped for dinner at Peter's Steakhouse in Isleton, which is right next door to the Hotel Del Rio and its classic neon sign. We couldn't resist a photo of it all lit up. Photo by Glenn.


We didn't get a good sense of our teleconverter's abilities on the Sacramento wildlife trip, so the following day we went to Contra Loma Reservoir in Antioch to play with the camera some more. It was cold and cloudy with intermittent rain showers. That made for some interesting lighting. Roni uses the monopod to focus on some ducks swimming near the shoreline. Photo by Glenn.


The recent rains are making for some great wildflower blooms this year. The meadow at Contra Loma is already filled with mustard. Photo by Glenn.


Glenn takes a break from his mustard photos to pose for Roni's camera. She still has the teleconverter on, so we were quite far apart. The shot is a bit overexposed because we had the exposure compensation on the camera kicked up much higher than it should have been. Well, you can't learn if you don't experiment. Photo by Roni.


Another weekend, another wildlife viewing trip. Feb. 6 finds us at Cosumnes River Preserve near Lodi, where the birding opportunities were just as bleak as they had been in Sacramento. The preserve set loose a bunch of sheep to mow down some of the grasses that grow wild along the marsh. Photo by Glenn.


Who needs a phoebe? Why, we need a phoebe! Especially when they are kind enough to pose for us, as this one did at Cosumnes River Preserve. Photo by Glenn.


Blossoms emerge on an almond branch Feb. 7 during our blossom walk along the DuPont siding in Oakley. We had some nice weather for Super Bowl Sunday. Photo by Glenn.


Ben was able to make the blossom trek with Glenn this year, so we posed for pics with the almond blossoms. Photo by Glenn.


Another dad-and-son portrait along the empty tracks in the DuPont railyard. Glenn's getting lots of use out of his hat he got for Christmas. Photo by Glenn.


We got back from our blossom walk in plenty of time to catch the Super Bowl 50 broadcast. Not a particularly exciting game, but we were happy to see Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning go out a winner in what may have been his final game. Photo by Glenn.


We walked on the George Miller Trail at the Carquinez Regional Shoreline on Feb. 9 as part of the East Bay Regional Park District's Trails Challenge. Here a Union Pacific freight train makes its way west around the tracks that hug the shore. Photo by Glenn.


The trail has several conveniently placed picnic tables perfect for taking a break as we hiked our way along the Carquinez shoreline. Photo by Glenn.


A herd of goats eye us warily from a ridge above the trail. The park district uses them to control weeds. The rancher uses a cattle dog to control the goats. Looks like everything is under control. Photo by Glenn.


What we think is a mimosa acacia tree grows wild along the George Miller Trail at Carquinez Regional Shoreline. Its yellow blooms are spectacular. We want one for our yard now, but we're a little leery because it is also known as a "thorn tree." Thorns we don't need more of. Photo by Glenn.


The obligatory trail selfie. We don't look too much worse for wear after a nearly 4-mile hike at Carquinez Regional Shoreline. Photo by Glenn.


Roni poses with her barbecue pork lunch at CreAsian Vietnamese Bistro in Brentwood on Saturday, Feb. 13. We like eating here and seem to do so every couple of months. Photo by Glenn.


We decided to get ourselves a mutual gift for Valentine's Day — a Keurig coffee maker. We went just a tad overboard picking out different K-cup pods to try in the new machine. Photo by Glenn.


We've been giving the Keurig 2.0 coffee maker a workout since day one. Glenn finally has a good use for the large Jack Skellington mug Ben gave him for Christmas. Photo by Glenn.

We raised Ben in a virtually coffee-free home for nearly two decades, so clearly he was corrupted from the outside. We bought one small jar of Folger’s instant sometime back in 1988 soon after we were married, just to have it available to serve when family came to call, and on the rare occasions over the years when we would clean the kitchen cabinets, we would pull it out and marvel at how it had rarely if ever been opened. We may have finally tossed it in the most recent cupboard purge, or perhaps it still dwells in the back of some dark shelf. Expiration date? Who cares? Aside from the occasional Starbucks cappuccino mocha latte fresh from the barista, or as an added ingredient in our favorite ice creams, we had blissfully avoided coffee and all its addicting qualities.

That is, we had until now.

Along came the three-day Presidents Day weekend and Valentine’s Day sandwiched right in the middle. Honestly, they sneaked up on us, which doesn’t happen often because we are always looking forward to the next long weekend, but we found ourselves woefully unprepared for what is supposed to be the most romantic couples day of the year. We’ve never been much for fancy Valentine’s gifts for each other, usually drawing the line at cards and chocolates, and even if Roni harbored secret desires for roses or diamonds, she wasn’t angling for them less than two months after receiving her fancy camera lens for Christmas. (As she likes to say, “My diamonds are black and come attached to a strap and get great close-ups.”) Still, we sometimes treat each other to a special breakfast or lunch, or as turned out to be the case this year, a mutual present.

Don’t ask what put the idea into our heads of getting a coffee maker, because that was about as out of left field as we might have expected. Glenn, who has always been more interested in coffee than Roni, first suggested the possibility because he keeps some late hours and often complains he doesn’t have enough energy during the day. We have been buying powdered chai tea mix to get us through the cold winter, and he was enjoying the ability to mix up a large glass before starting work at home, so perhaps coffee was a natural evolution. In any case, we were sitting in our living room on Saturday afternoon, the day before Valentine’s Day, just chatting about our plans for the weekend, when the conversation somehow turned to coffee makers and how convenient it would be to have one of the models that allows you to make a single cup on demand. Roni started looking them up on Amazon, and next thing we knew we had decided to get one as our Valentine’s Day gift to each other.

 

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RDERING A COFFEE maker online would have been convenient, but we wanted to have it for Valentine’s Day, so we went out the next morning to “kick the tires” of the models that were available at the brick-and-mortar stores. We wound up at Bed Bath & Beyond where they have at least a dozen models of coffee makers to choose from. We passed over the traditional coffee pot models and went right to the Keurig 2.0 display to compare features of the several models they offer.

Keurig specializes in single-serving machines that can brew an 8-ounce beverage in about 2 minutes from small plastic containers called K-cup pods. Seeing as how we rarely make up a large batch of anything, having the ability to quickly prepare a single serving from a pre-measured container was a key selling point. Additionally, there are several hundred K-cup varieties available, meaning that at one moment we might enjoy a glass of Lipton iced tea and the next be inhaling the aroma of Peet’s House Blend dark roast or Swiss Miss cocoa. That ability to please everyone doesn’t happen with an old-fashioned coffee maker that churns out a large pot of the same drink that gradually goes cold and stale throughout the day.

We settled on the Keurig 250, which is one of the smallest systems the company makes, figuring its 40-ounce water capacity would be plenty to meet our needs. The machine was on sale for about $90, but we spent more than half that on several boxes of K-cup pods to get us started with some variety. It’s tough to know what you will like if you haven’t sampled a lot of coffee, but we were about to discover for ourselves as we stocked up on six or seven boxes of product. Okay, so maybe we went a little overboard.

We got the Keurig home and quickly had it brewing away. We’d stopped off at Lucky to pick up some bagels, so we enjoyed a romantic Valentine’s lunch of bagels, cream cheese and lox with piping hot mugs of tea and coffee.

We’ve had the coffee maker for about a week as of this writing and so far it has received little rest. Ben has been brewing up coffee to take to work, while we have been enjoying a couple cups a day. Roni prefers the hot cocoa mixes and teas while Glenn has discovered he enjoys the donut shop blends and dark roasts. The Starbucks coffees, which we thought we would like because we were used to what you get at their stores fresh or bottled from the grocer, turned out to be a disappointment. They are not as sweet as the store-bought coffees, which is probably a good thing from a diet perspective, but the flavor is unexciting even with sugar and cream added.

On that note, Glenn is trying to avoid adding anything to the coffees he makes in order to keep the calories down, substituting a cup of coffee for high-calorie snacks he might otherwise be eating. It is an experiment to see if it helps him lose some weight, and so far it seems to be working. He may wind up lighter but more wired from the caffeine. Stay tuned.

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AST MONTH WE promised to bring you pictures of bald eagles with Roni’s new lens, but a funny thing happened on the way to the Oregon border...

It was the morning of Jan. 30, and we had planned to be up and on the road early for what was to be a three-day trip to the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge that hugs the state line. We had been there 11 years ago on our first snow-filled eagle-viewing adventure and had always wanted to return once we got better photography gear. On a good day in the winter you can literally see hundreds of bald eagles there, but you want to head out early in the morning while they are sitting in the fields hunting. We planned to spend the night in Weed and then drive up Sunday morning to watch the birds about an hour away. We’d then make our slow return home, arriving back either late Sunday or maybe even Monday if we were having the time of our lives.

Instead, Roni awoke Saturday morning with a raging earache and was on the phone with the advice nurse at Kaiser trying to get an old prescription for antibiotics refilled. She’d had this problem before when her glands swelled up and caused her ear canals to close, trapping fluid that then led to a painful infection. The doctor had prescribed an antibiotic then, so she hoped that if she started taking the meds right away this time that things wouldn’t get worse. By the time she had been to the pharmacy and back it was already after 10:15 a.m. We threw our camera bags and a few provisions in the back of her car and were on our way north, remembering our last trip this way in September that also found us horribly behind schedule and arriving very late at our destination of Salem, Ore. We weren’t going anywhere near that far this trip, but we had already decided that we wouldn't push ourselves, especially given Roni’s condition with her sore ear, and would stop before Weed if we were too tired. Redding, perhaps.

But our resolve began to wane as we motored north on I-5. The weather had been poor much of the week, and while it wasn’t raining much this day, there were plenty of clouds that grew more dense once afternoon arrived. We weren’t sure what that would mean for the border, which was at a higher elevation and more likely to see cold temperatures and snow. We weren’t well prepared for that, seeing as Glenn had forgotten his snow gloves and Roni worried that the cold would bother her ear. We stopped at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge in Glenn County, having been there in the fall and knowing what to expect. At least there would be birds here, or so we thought.

The Sacramento refuge was much busier this day than had been the case when we saw it on a September weekday. That is, there were a lot more people – but a lot fewer birds. We stopped in first at the visitor center where another birder was telling the rangers how she had seen two bald eagles that very morning flying around the refuge. Naturally she didn’t have a decent camera with her, so she had snapped them on her cell phone. Seriously? Those little blobs could have been anything. But at least we’d been given hope. Perhaps we wouldn’t have to drive all the way to Oregon to see the bald eagles.

As we had done in September, we took the auto tour and followed the route from the visitor center that loops around the vast refuge property. We pulled over every few minutes where there appeared to be activity and brought out the Nikon and the new tripod we’d purchased with this sort of trip in mind. The tripod conveniently includes a monopod in one of its legs, so you can choose which way best supports the lens you are using. Roni had been practicing with her 500 mm lens and was getting more comfortable using it, but she decided the monopod was more convenient to use for birding because it is more mobile. We had also purchased a 2.0x teleconverter with the power to turn her 500 mm lens into a 1,000 mm birding super beast. All of this added about 8 pounds to her camera, so it took the two of us working in tandem to get it out of the car, hooked up and back on the seat when she was done.

We stopped at the observation platform about midway through the auto tour and did what everyone else was doing: looked at the flocks of ducks and snow geese and other waterfowl and lamented that there weren’t many birds around today. Roni asked another visitor who had a large viewing scope if he had seen the alleged bald eagles, and he said that he had seen one – back near the entrance to the preserve. Hmmm, we must be at the wrong end. At least now we’d heard of two independent eagle sightings, so there was still a chance. We sat in our car and ate the lunch of salad and trail mix that Roni had packed, contemplating our next move. She had been playing with the camera on the observation platform, but we were both of the opinion that our birding opportunities at this preserve were limited.

Not helping matters was the fact that it was the final weekend of duck hunting season, and part of the Sacramento refuge gets closed off so that hunters can have their way with the birds that are stupid enough to hang out there. The preserve’s rangers had been apologizing to folks that the bird counts were low today. It might have had something to do with the El Niño-driven weather patterns, or maybe it was the constant BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! of shotguns just next door. Ya think?

Anyhow, we decided the lack of birds, poor light and crowds made it difficult to get the photos we really wanted, so we called our visit done and made our way back to the entrance, all the while peering into the distant trees in hopes of spotting a bald eagle. Nothing. Just vultures and crows and hawks. Roni pulled the car over one more time near the end of the auto tour route and began to set up the camera for a shot of a large pond filled with stilts and other birds. She barely had stepped out of the car when one of the rangers drove up and informed her that visitors on the auto tour aren’t allowed to leave their cars because it can interfere with traffic and disturbs the birds. Apparently we had been doing this wrong the entire visit but no one had called us on it until now. We apologized, but at the same time wondered how disturbed these birds could have been if they were willing to hang out so close to where cars were moving about, and how much worse our activity was compared to what the guys in camouflage were doing about a mile to the south.

Discouraged by what we found at the Sacramento preserve, we continued north on I-5 still entertaining the idea of viewing eagles the next day. But it was getting late in the afternoon and we were in agreement that our hearts weren’t as into this trip as we would have liked. Sometimes you take things as a sign that it wasn’t meant to be, and so we concluded about this excursion. We’d head home and let Roni’s ear heal up and plan for another weekend – maybe one with more birds and better weather.

But before turning for home we decided to stop in Corning to check out the Olive Pit, which has long been a favorite spot of ours. The store is a haven for gourmands, and there you can sample and purchase just about any of the dozens of olive varieties the store stocks. We have always been drawn to the spicy varieties, so it was no surprise that we walked out with a bottle of jalapeno-stuffed olives and another of the cajun style. Glenn picked up a bottle of the bleu cheese-stuffed olives, but given that Roni isn’t a bleu cheese fan, it should come as no surprise that he got to eat those himself. We also decided to check to check out the store’s restaurant before heading out. They have a deli counter where you can also buy ice cream treats, so we bought a couple of shakes for the road. The menu includes some flavors you won’t find at any malt shop, so Glenn got brave and tried the prune and vinaigrette. Perhaps one of the best shakes he’d ever had.

It was getting late by the time we reached Highway 160 for the winding final leg of our journey home, so we stopped for dinner at Peter’s Steakhouse in Isleton. It was about an hour before closing time and we had the place to ourselves with the exception of a few folks hanging out at the bar and a musician playing live jazz for the anemic audience. We enjoyed our meals of baked salmon with baked potato and linguine in alfredo sauce, a nice way to end a long and adventurous Saturday.

 

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E MAY NOT have found our eagles, but we have had several other birding opportunities this past month. On Feb. 9 we made our first visit to Carquinez Regional Shoreline in Martinez to enjoy the nice weather and take part in the East Bay Regional Park District’s annual Trails Challenge program. The goal of Trails Challenge is to get participants to hike a total of 26.2 miles using designated routes in several of the district’s parks. The hikes are rated from easy to moderate to challenging, and given that we don’t do a lot of hiking, Roni wanted to start with an easy trail.

Carquinez has two main trails, and the one that we took – the George Miller Trail – is paved and follows the contours of the shoreline, although it is high in the hills and a bit of a drive to get there. The trail itself is about 2 miles from one end to the other and is rated as a “zero elevevation” route. But don’t let that fool you; there are plenty of ups and downs along the way, enough that Roni was thankful for the several benches that we found along the hike. The trail overlooks the Carquinez strait and the Union Pacific railroad tracks that hug the shoreline. You can see across the Strait to Benicia, and east toward the Benicia Bridge and the shipping terminals that line the river. Glenn was fascinated by the transportation aspect while Roni was much more interested in the wildlife, and there was plenty of each to see. This time, however, we left the 500 mm lens at home to avoid lugging all the extra weight while trying to negotiate the trail.

The park district works with ranchers who bring in goats to graze the property. On the day we visited Carquinez there was a large flock of goats working the hillside, a cattle dog and one farmhand to keep them all in line as they chewed around the ancient oak trees. We passed other folks on the trail – some cyclists, runners, couples out with their dogs – quite a few people for a weekday afternoon. By the time we had made it to one end of the trail and back, hot and tired, we were wondering how the park district had come up with the idea that this was an easy hike. We were afraid to see what challenging looks like. At least we’d managed to knock off four miles from this year’s challenge.

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EBRUARY ALWAYS HAILS the start of spring in our region, regardless of anything the calendar might say. Once the temperature begins to warm up and the trees and wildflowers start to bloom... well, that’s when we know our brief winter is at an end and it’s time for gardening (i.e. yard cleanup work) and Glenn’s annual walk to enjoy the spring-like views.

This year Glenn took his “blossom walk” on Super Bowl Sunday, before the kickoff of the NFL’s title game between Denver and Carolina, which the Bay Area hosted. It was a rare occasion that Ben didn’t have work, so father and son got to make the walk together for the first time in about four years. The route varies from year to year, but it always includes the former DuPont railyard to our west, where there are two large grape vineyards and a handful of almond trees that have survived the years and the whims of nature and development.

Ben isn’t as hardy or adventurous a hiker as his dad, so this year’s walk was relatively brief. They hiked through the railyard and over the trestle at Bridgehead Road into east Antioch, turning around just past the Highway 160 overpass. This was the first time Glenn had walked the route since the railroad went to two tracks nearly a year ago (the project wasn’t quite finished at this time last year, even though the second line was mostly laid) and there have been a number of changes along the mainline. BNSF has stepped up its efforts to discourage trespassers, but while there are many more signs posted along the route to that effect, there is no evidence they have any teeth. We just always make it a point to be careful and not walk on the tracks. The other thing we noticed is that the homeless encampments have been making a comeback, despite the fact that there have been efforts to clear them out over the years and some of the fences have been mended where people once made access to the embankments along the tracks and highway. Glenn and Ben didn’t actually encounter anyone along their walk, but it was obvious there had been recent activity there.

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T'S BEEN A busy few weeks for Ben, who after months of struggling with his computer system and saving up to purchase a new one finally took the plunge and ordered all he needed online. Whereas most folks would run over to their nearest computer store and pick out the latest all-in-one system they’d simply plug in and begin using right out of the box, Ben was convinced by his friend Aaron that assembling one to his own specs was the better way to go. And so it was that the two of them assembled the parts list and then Ben ordered all the components by mail.

The new computer arrived as 14 separate boxes over the space of about a month. There was the mother board, the case, a fan, power supply, and eventually a solid-state hard drive that a friend of his sent him – because why would you build a suped-up computer and then run it off a slothful old-school hard disk? About the only thing he didn’t buy was a graphics card, because they are on the expensive side and because he already had one in his existing HP machine that he could use. Yes, the Hewlett-Packard Pavilion computer we’d purchased for him a few Christmases ago has officially been relegated to the scrap heap to be cannibalized for parts.

Ben doesn’t have a lot of experience when it comes to building things, but fortunately he had Aaron to do the heavy lifting on the assembly part. Aaron is a born techie who has studied some IT stuff in school and built similar computer systems for a couple other of their friends, so he had Ben’s rig together and working in no time. It is definitely speedier than what it replaced; Ben said he can complete downloads for his games about 10 times faster than what he had been able to do with his old computer, which had antenna problems and was constantly losing its connection with our internet service. Now he wants to save up for the improved graphics card and a larger TV/monitor that he can mount on his wall to have dual gaming screens. Now all we need to do is find him his own apartment where he can game to his heart’s content late at night and not keep the rest of the house awake. Probably not happening right away.

Ben is also marking a year working at Grocery Outlet and is proud to be among the few of the original 35 crew members who are still there. He continues to work as a courtesy clerk, but recently has expanded into some different duties including occasionally helping out with the weekend closing shifts and stocking the dairy products. He expressed interest to his boss in learning how to work the meat department, and although the job eventually went to someone else with experience, we are proud of him for trying to expand his skills.

 

Glenn, Roni and Ben