birdwatching and buttermilk muffins

On my way into work this morning, as I walked the sidewalk path from the parking garage to the hospital, I heard the leaves in the oak trees above me rustling with activity, despite the lack of a noticeable breeze.  Birds chirped and chittered in the branches, occasionally swooping out and over to another nearby tree. The birds grew louder and more insistent as I neared the stretch of holly trees that flank either side of the sidewalk in front of the main hospital doors.

I’m fairly obsessed with birds, and for reasons I can’t explain, I am compelled to identify each one that I spot. It likely comes from growing up in a house with my father and his similar obsession with naming the living creatures we encountered. We had guidebooks on trees and flowers, insects and snakes, and, of course, birds. Similar guidebooks, more modern versions of my dad’s, now rest on my office bookshelf.

These birds were greyish, with chests of burnt orange– American Robins – and they were swarming the branches of the holly trees above me, gorging themselves on the abundant tiny red berries. The robins flew from tree to tree, plucking holly berries when they landed, singing about it all the while, and making quite a fuss.

I smiled, and I stopped to watch them. I wanted to photograph them, and to record their voices, so that I could see and hear them later, when they’ve moved on to other trees, in other places.

This simple thing – standing below the swarming of the robins — brightened my morning. It made up for the angry patient I’ve been dealing with lately, the one who routinely curses and belittles her doctors (including me) and nurses and therapists. It made up for the headache I had at the time, and it made up for having to leave my children with our (newest) babysitter so I could work today. It almost made up for having to work this weekend and next.

Taking these little moments of joy for granted is so easy to do. How easy it would have been to ignore the chirping, to keep my head down and neglect the world around me. And how sad it would have been if I had.

It is often simple things, small things, which make the most meaningful impact on my life. A picture my son drew for me. The brave smile on my daughter’s face as she got her ears pierced last weekend. Seeing bluebirds perched on our fence. Hundreds of robins, flittering about, and getting drunk on holly berries.

And warm buttermilk muffins slathered with butter and jam.

Yield: 12 muffins

Buttermilk Muffins

These muffins are faintly sweet, but very versatile. They work beautifully as dinner rolls, cut in half with a smear of butter, or serve them for breakfast with honey or jam. Or snack on them plain, which is what we do.


2 cups (250 grams) all purpose flour
1/8 cup (25 grams) granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 egg
1-1/4 cup buttermilk


Preheat oven to 400 degrees and place rack in middle position. Spray a 12-cup muffin tin with nonstick baking spray or lightly grease with butter.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. In a small bowl, stir the butter, egg, and buttermilk together until well blended. Add the liquid ingredients to the flour mixture and stir just until well combined. Batter will be thick.

Ladle batter into the prepared muffin tin, filling each muffin cup about 2/3 full. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until edges of muffins have turned golden brown. Serve warm.