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The Great Winter Circle beckons

The cold crisp air that might otherwise keep you inside provides some of the clearest and darkest skies of the year, so even with this week’s bright moon, some major stars and constellations stand out against its glare.
    Sunset Thursday finds the near-full moon high in the east, between Betelgeuse, the shoulder of Orion, below, and the twins of Gemini, Pollux and Castor, above. From these two stars wends the stars the Great Winter Circle, more aptly called the Great Winter Hexagon, which contains seven of the 23 brightest stars.
    To trace this asterism, begin with blueish-white Pollux (17), then look to honey-orange Castor (23) higher in the north. From there shoot to the northeast to golden Capella (6) of the constellation Auriga the charioteer. Next, drop southwest to red Aldebaran (14), the eye of Taurus the bull. Now shift your gaze to Orion’s foot, blue-white Rigel (7). Farther south is the hunter’s great dog, Canis Major, marked by Sirius, the brightest star in the heavens. Back to the northeast you’ll find the Little Dog Canis Minor and its lead star Procyon (8). Return to Pollux and you’ve closed the loop. While not part of the circle, Betelgeuse sits right in the middle and is the 10th brightest star.
    As the sun sets Saturday, January’s full Wolf Moon climbs into the eastern sky, trailing Castor and Pollux and to the left of Procyon. By Monday the now-waning gibbous moon has left behind the Great Circle and is just a few degrees to the south of another stellar luminary, Regulus (21), the heart of Leo the lion. Tuesday the moon is midway between Regulus to the west and Jupiter to the east. Wednesday night through dawn next Thursday, the moon is 10 degrees below Jupiter.
    Brighter than any star, Jupiter rises due east just after 9pm and is at its highest in the south at 3am. By that time Mars, rising around 1:30am, will be well above the southeast horizon. Saturn rises just after 4am, followed 90 minutes later by Venus, brighter than all but the sun and moon. Saturn and Venus are about 15 degrees apart, but the Morning Star sinks lower day by day while Saturn inches higher. As the coming sun starts to glow in the east, see if you can spot Mercury low against the horizon; binoculars may help spot this last of the naked-eye planets.

Give them light, but go easy on water and fertilizer

In winter’s short daylight hours and cooler temperatures, houseplants require less watering and fertilizing. But they don’t want to be neglected. In winter and early spring, give plants as much light as possible. Even placing them near a lit lamp during evening hours will help considerably in keeping good health. Incandescent bulbs consume more energy, but because they emit red light waves that can be absorbed by the chlorophyll in the leaves, they are better for plants than LED or florescent bulbs.
    Fertilize at least monthly at half concentration. Follow the watering rule when you apply liquid fertilizer, adding enough water so that some drains from the bottom of the container.
    Poor watering is a problem I see often in troubled houseplants. Frequently, only the upper half of the root ball appears to have been watered. The lower half is as dry as the Sahara Desert.  Often, there is a visible line of fertilizer salts accumulating between the wet and dry regions with concentrations sufficient to burn roots in the fertilizer zone.
    Never apply slow-release fertilizers in fall or winter, as they are engineered to release their nutrients during active growth. Adding slow-release fertilizers now will likely cause fertilizer burn as they release nutrients faster because the soil is constantly at room temperature during this period of low light intensity and poor growing conditions.
    Don’t put African violets near a window. African violets perform best in diffused light and near-constant temperatures. In windows, the plants are exposed to cooler temperatures in the evening and warmer temperatures during daylight hours. Unlike many plants that would benefit from such a temperature change, African violets will cease to flower and may even exhibit cold damage on the foliage. Place them in the middle of a well-lighted room for more constant temperatures.


Ask The Bay Gardener your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

Bird watching, fishing and hunting are all in season

Late January can be a great time for outdoor lovers, including bird watchers and waterfowl hunters. The arrival of colder weather has encouraged migrating waterfowl to finally head our way along the Atlantic Flyway. The Ches­apeake and its tributaries are ideal resting and feeding areas where these birds will linger, at least until additional foul weather convinces them to continue to warmer climes. Some will eventually travel as far as Mexico.
    Now’s the time to see some 250 species of migrating birds and waterfowl including tundra swans, snow geese, Canada geese, loons, wood ducks, canvasback ducks, widgeons, mallards, black ducks, golden eyes, buffleheads, old squaws and eiders.
    Great sites for viewing (and in some cases, hunting) these visitors are parks and refuges including Blackwater Wildlife Refuge (near Cambridge), Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge (near Rock Hall), Elk Neck State Park (near North East) and Wye Island Natural Resources Management Area (near Queenstown).
    Small-game hunters seeking a clever but tasty animal will find this is one of the best months for success in hunting Maryland’s prolific gray squirrel. Despite being sought by owls, hawks, weasels, foxes, coyotes and the like, the gray squirrel has continued to expand its range and numbers.
    Its wily nature in the forest can make it a difficult animal for hunters to approach. However, mid-January marks the beginning of the mating season, and romantic inclinations make them especially active. With the trees clear of foliage, squirrels are more vulnerable to quietly moving hunters than at any other time of the year.
    Squirrel meat was the primary wild game in the original Brunswick Stew (cooks.com/recipe/5h5f08i5/brunswick-stew.html) that fed Colonial America during the wintertime for nearly a century until the forests were eventually cleared and other game species (and domestic animals) became more numerous. Our state game management areas are ideal places to seek out this cautious but delicious critter. Try the DNR website http://tinyurl.com/MD-DNR-wildlife for more information.
    Anglers on the Chesapeake haven’t for quite some time had a winter rockfish catch-and-release season like the one now going on at Point Lookout at the mouth of the Potomac River. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel has also been having a good run, the best in the last few years, and there you can keep one fish over 28 inches.
    Crappie are schooling, as are yellow perch, and both should become available in the very near future as they begin to spawn, especially short warming spells continue. Six- to seven-foot medium-action spinning rods with six- to 10-pound mono are ideal for both of these delicious creatures. Best baits are minnows, grass shrimp, bloodworms, earthworms and wax worms, in that order. Fish them on a shad dart under a bobber or on a high-low rig on the bottom. Target along the shorelines at the high tides or the deeper channels during the low phases. Crappie and perch both like to hang out around submerged bushes and trees.
    Chain pickerel are probably the most reliable and aggressive game fish in both fresh and salt water in mid-January and into February. These fish seem to be energized by the colder weather. A toothy fish that can easily reach 24 inches (citation size), the pickerel likes to ambush its prey and can be usually found lurking around downed trees (laydowns), piers and docks (the older the better), floating rafts of leaves and debris and rock jetties. They will also follow the schools of yellow perch that are moving up to spawn in tributary headwaters.
    Hikers along the Bay’s shoreline should keep an eye out for the graceful lion’s mane jellyfish that show up in good numbers this time of year. Large brownish creatures of five pounds or more each, they are clearly visible on calm days pulsating along the clearer waters of the wintertime Chesapeake.

That’s to be feared when work stops on an oyster reef

In a Bay of 700,000 acres, why make a big deal about eight acres?
    Could it be because those eight acres are the slippery slope on which restoration of Crassostrea virginica could lose its footing?
    With Chesapeake Country under blizzard watch, you can understand why the slippery slope is a dreaded place.
    Less understandable is what’s going on at the muddy bottom of the Eastern Shore’s Tred Avon River.
    More precisely, not going on.
    At issue is Gov. Larry Hogan’s stop-work order on building an ­oyster reef on those eight acres.
    That hole in the water on the Choptank River tributary that links Easton and Oxford is one small piece in a complex saga of oyster restoration. As sagas must, the story stretches back through many years of dramatic rises and falls of a local hero.
    The hero is our Chesapeake oyster, an inert bivalve with superpowers apparent if only you look inside its shell. The Chesapeake ecology and economy rests on a foundation of oysters.
    Our oyster’s trials and tribulations are so well known that our school children recite them.
    Snatching our hero from the jaws of doom is a multi-billion dollar rescue mission that’s spanned decades and only now seems to be working.
    Sanctuaries give our native oyster just what the name supposes they should: undisturbed places to grow where their colonies rise up like trees in an underwater forest rich with life.
    Twenty-five percent of the Bay’s traditional oystering grounds are promised to be reserved as sanctuaries, some 9,000 acres, according to the current Maryland Department of Natural Resources plan. It’s a plan that took years to fine tune, not in locked rooms where bureaucrats debate but in the public forum. It’s a plan in which we have all had our say, from citizens to watermen to scientists to waterway managers and environmental planners.
    A sanctuary isn’t made by name alone. Oysters have to be cultivated there, from the bottom up. Once the right place is found, a foundation has to be laid. Oyster shell is the bed oysters like best. Dropping shell once it’s acquired is a heavy construction project. None of it’s simple or cheap. As much of the money comes through federal and state funding, you can bet it’s made way to its destination — Harris Creek or the Tred Avon — through a policy-making maze.
    In Harris Creek — the Choptank tributary nearest to the main Bay — the sanctuary has been made: 350 acres of new reefs laid and seeded with two billion juvenile oysters at a cost of $26 million.
    On the Tred Avon, work was started in a 150-acre oyster restoration. The money — $11.5 million — was in hand and the contractors hired and ready to go.
    In so big a plan, why halt work on eight acres, unless it’s a first step on a slippery slope away from the best ­success we’ve had yet in restoring our native oyster?
    What happens on those few acres makes a big splash.
    “This largely federal project is a critical piece of and the next step in the state’s commitment to restore oyster populations in five Maryland waterways under the 2014 multi-state Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement with the federal government,” according to our two senators, Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin.
    It’s important enough that you need to know.
    Learn more in the Bay Journal article Watermen Seek, Win, Halt in Tred Avon Oyster Restoration Project: http://bit.ly/BayWeekly_Oysters.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; editor@bayweekly.com

Why do these home-bodies endure the ­rigors of a northern winter when they could fly south?

All birds are migratory to some extent. Some may travel great distances twice annually, from North to South America. Others may regularly move, as the seasons turn, from Canada to Mexico and farther. A few species merely move southward as cold weather advances. Still others wander about in search of a good food supply.
    A smaller number do not travel much at all. They may spend their entire lives within a mile of their birthplace, expanding their range only as the population increases. The cardinal is one of these stay-at-homes.
    Why do these colorful birds, which one would expect to live in the tropics, stay with us all the year? Why do they endure the rigors of a northern winter when they could fly south?
    The answer is buried deep in the evolutionary past, within the climatic changes and continental drifts that have occurred through the ages.
    Cardinals are well equipped to endure the north winter. Their strong, thick bills can readily crack the large seeds that persist through winter and on the bulky sunflower seeds we feed them. They overcome the shortening of winter days, too, by staying up late. They visit the feeder until it is quite dark, long after the other birds have retired.
    At one time, however, to picture cardinals in snow would not have seemed appropriate. Basically a southern bird, the cardinal has the center of its abundance in Dixieland, in the Carolinas and Gulf States. (Audubon painted them among a spray of magnolia flowers.) Since then, the bird has been spreading its range northward, a process much enhanced by global warming. Unknown north of New York City in Colonial times, the cardinal is now established along the Canadian border.


Bay Weekly readers voted John Best Artist on the Bay in the 2015 Best of the Bay readers’ poll.

One man battles nature and the human ­condition in his quest for revenge

In the 1820s, the part of the Louisiana Purchase that became the Dakota territories was a dangerous place. White men seeking furs risked running afoul of native tribes, vicious animals and inhospitable weather. Scout Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio: The Wolf of Wall Street) knows the perils, for he and his half-Pawnee son have spent their lives leading white men in and out of the wilderness to find fortune.
    When a trapping party runs afoul of the Arikara tribe, the men scramble into the mountains. Glass is mauled by a bear. Ribs exposed, bones broken and bleeding profusely, he is unlikely to survive the night.
    Daunted at the prospect of hauling the injured man over the mountains, the trappers appoint two men as a burial party to wait with Glass and his son.
    The funeral doesn’t go as planned, when the remaining trappers kill Glass’s son and toss them both into a shallow grave. Overcome with rage and grief, Glass drags himself from the frigid ground and begins a 200-mile journey toward vengeance.
    Filled with gore, cruelty and lots of ratty facial hair, The Revenant is a revenge Western for the modern age. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman) contrasts the cruelty of man with the cruelty of nature in this epic tale. We also see the plight of native peoples in 1800s America, robbed of their lands, animals and basic rights, resorting to violence against white invaders. Iñárritu carefully contrasts the plight of the Arikara with Glass, both on quests to reclaim stolen dignity.
    Essentially the story of one man’s revenge against nature and man, The Revenant is a showcase for DiCaprio. He carries the story well, but his acting style of shouting his way through emotional scenes gets distracting. In his rare quiet moments, he is more effective. These glimpses do more to make him human and relatable than his unending parade of broken bones and oozing wounds. As the principal antagonist, Tom Hardy (Legend) does what he can with a role so evil he should have horns sprouting from his scalp.
    The real star of The Revenant, however, is the staggering cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman). His sweeping landscapes and gorgeously composed frames make all 156 minutes a treat. The cold gray land that envelops Glass becomes a character unto itself, harsh and unforgiving as he struggles to overcome it.
    Filled with stunning images and interesting plotlines, The Revenant is a must-see for those with a strong stomach.

Good Drama • R • 156 mins.

Reconsider what you think you know about relationships, sex and power

“Colonial Players might just want to bring playwright David Ives on as a resident artist. Last year, Ives’ witty version of the 17th century French farce The Liar won the company the coveted Ruby Griffith Award from the British Embassy for best all-around production by a Washington-area community theater. Now, Venus in Fur — Ives’ take on a stage version of Venus in Furs, the 1870 novel by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch — is equally entertaining and a perfect fit for Colonial’s intimate theater-in-the-round.
    Yes, Sacher-Masoch is the man who, unwittingly, gave us the term masochism, and as this play within a play progresses, it’s not easy for us as an audience to discern the difference between masochism and sadism. And that’s the way Ives intends it.
    Venus in Fur starts with thunder and lightning that portends the battle of the sexes we’re about to see, as playwright/director Thomas Novacek, cranky and spent after a day auditioning actresses without any classical training or “a particle of brain in their skulls,” is lamenting his plight on the phone with his fiancée. In walks young Vanda Jordan, profane, brash, beautiful and all wrong for the part. But she convinces Thomas to read her for the role, acting the male part himself, and we are off on a trip that is sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing, but always riveting.
    Is it a coincidence that her name, Vanda, is the same as the character’s (well, she admits, her name is Wanda but her parents always called her Vanda)? Is it just solid preparation that she comes with a big bag seemingly with a closetful of costumes, both his and hers, that are perfect for the roles? Is it coincidence that, after telling Thomas she quickly scanned the script’s pages on the train ride over, she actually has it memorized?
    As Thomas and Vanda, Jeff Mocho and Natalie Nankervis are a fine match. He is the slightly nerdy, khaki-clad writer trying to bring to life a book he finds as deep and full of meaning as the cultists who read it in 1879. She is the firestorm that rips through his smugness by calling the book soft-core porn.
    Both actors do a fine job moving quickly from their characters into the characters in Thomas’s play, with Nankervis especially effective switching off present-day Vanda’s excitable vocal staccato and sliding right into what can best be called a seducing dominatrix — with her subject more than willing to be the submissive. Both are able to give us a laugh-out-loud line (and there are plenty) one minute, while the next draw us into the emotions and motivations of the modern and 1870 characters they are portraying. It’s truly fine acting.  
    Set designer Ricardo Seijo has turned Colonial’s stage into a very realistic yet generic New York rehearsal hall, complete with fluorescent lights and fire sprinkler pipes along the ceiling and a brick wall along one side with realistic sealed windows that hint at the color outside while simultaneously reminding us that we are captives to … what? The theatrical process? The director-actor dynamic? The degradation bestowed by a dominatrix?
    Eric Lund’s stark at one moment and ethereal the next; lighting and Ben Cornwell’s sound add to the mystique that carries us from present day into 1870 and back. Kaelynn Miller’s costumes for Vanda, meanwhile, might make even the most jaded of theatergoers feel just a touch voyeuristic … which is exactly what Vanda would want, of course.
    If all this sounds like you’re in for an evening of whips and chains, fear not. This is a finely crafted script, nominated for a Tony Award in 2012, brilliantly brought to life on Colonial’s in-the-round stage by director Jim Gallagher and his stellar cast. Gallagher’s deft directorial hand and the complete believability of Mocho and Nankervis carry us on a visual and emotional journey that has us questioning what we think we know about relationships, sex and power.


About 90 minutes with no intermission. ThFSa 8pm, Su 2pm (and 7:30pm Jan. 17) thru Jan. 23. Colonial Players Theatre, Annapolis, $20 w/discounts, rsvp: 410-268-7373.
 
Director: Jim Gallagher. Producer: Jason Vaughn. Stage manager: Shirley Panek; Set designer: Ricardo Seijo. Lighting designer: Eric Lund. Sound Designer: Ben Cornwell. Costume Designer: Kaelynn Miller.

What will happen come May?

Cherry trees starting to bloom, tulip and narcissus bulbs sprouting foliage and forsythia starting to show yellow. The record-high December temperatures are raising questions about many plants. Hardly a week passes without concerned neighbors or Bay Weekly readers questioning me. My answer thus far has been to leave things alone and wait to see what happens in the spring.
    Some things are certain. Flowering cherry trees and forsythia will have fewer flowers come spring. Tulip and narcissus foliage will most likely grow very tall, if the winter low temperatures are not severe. If they are, it will be killed to the ground, and new foliage will replace it.   
    Unless normal winter temperatures come soon, apple, plum, peach, pear and cherry trees may not produce a normal crop. Such species must be exposed to temperatures between 40 and 32 degrees for 100-plus hours for their flowers to open and be pollinated in spring. These low-temperature requirements are called stratification; unless they are achieved, neither flower nor vegetative buds will develop normally.
    Plant growth this spring will be erratic. There will be more lateral than terminal growth. Narrow-leaf evergreen plants such as pine, spruce and fir trees will appear fatter and not grow as tall. Deciduous trees such as maple, oak and birch will often have long terminal stems and few side shoots.
    However, there have been many benefits to this warmer-than-normal December. We’ve all had lower heating cost. Gardeners who planted fall crops such as kale, broccoli, cauliflower, collards, turnips, Brussels sprouts, rutabaga and spinach have harvested bumper harvests. The broccoli has been extremely tender and has produced an abundance of large side shoots. Cauliflower heads have been eight to 10 inches in diameter and extremely tender. Kale and collard have not stopped growing tender, new, young leaves, and some of the rutabaga has produced bulbous roots four to six inches in diameter.
    If you planted garlic in the fall, you should have leaves 10 to 12 inches tall. If you mulched them well with compost, you will be harvesting nice big bulbs come June. From the looks of my elephant garlic plants, I anticipate one heck of a harvest come July.
    It will be an interesting spring to observe some of the effects of climate change on our native and introduced plants.


Ask The Bay Gardener your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

Watch the moon occult Aldebaran

As the sun sets, the hourglass shape of the great hunter Orion is already well positioned in the southeast. His foot, blue-white Rigel, is to the lower right, while his shoulder, red-orange Betelgeuse, is at the opposite corner to the upper left. The three stars of Orion’s belt point almost straight up from the horizon, and following them up and to the right leads you to Taurus the bull.
    Most prominent in Taurus is its fiery eye, the orange-red star Aldebaran. From there look for the bull’s face, marked by the V-shaped Hyades star cluster. Aldebaran is at one leg of the V, although not itself a part of the Hyades. Higher to the right marking the bull’s shoulder is the Pleiades Cluster.
    Monday the waxing gibbous moon sits at one point of a triangle with Aldebaran and the Pleiades, although you may be hard-pressed to spot the cluster against the glare of the moon.
    Tuesday after sunset look for the moon just right of Aldebaran and the Hyades Cluster. Then, just before 9:30, watch as the moon passes over the bull’s fiery eye, occulting it from view for almost an hour.
    In the hour before sunrise, clear skies in the southeast should allow you to see the four naked-eye planets currently visible. Closest to the horizon are Venus and Saturn. There should be no mistaking Venus, blazing at –4 magnitude. Saturn, roughly 10 degrees higher, is more than 60 times dimmer at magnitude +0.5. Don’t confuse Saturn with the nearby star Antares; the ringed planet shines with a steady yellowish glow, while the not-quite-so-bright star twinkles with a red hue. Antares, Saturn and Venus do, however, form a nice triangle.
    Imagine a line from Venus to Saturn, and extend it another 20 degrees or so to find Mars and farther still for Jupiter. Mars is not as bright as Saturn, while Jupiter is the next-brightest starlike object after Venus. You should be able to tell both from blue-white Spica a dozen degrees above Mars.
    You might be able to spot the last the naked-eye planet, Mercury, as early as Wednesday if you’re lucky. It will be even lower than Venus in the glow of the coming sun. You’ll likely need to scour the horizon with binoculars to first see this fleeting planet, which will present an easier target next week.

When you can’t fish, practice casting

Looking out my front window on a beautiful January morning, I could see that the sun was shining brightly and the wind calm. My eyes settled on the skiff in the driveway, covered with its blue winter-weather blanket. I mused that with a little effort I could pull the cover, hook up the trailer and be on the water inside of 20 minutes. Then I mentioned the thought to Deborah, my long-suffering wife.
    “Great idea,” she said. “It’s all the way up to 35 degrees, and while you’re out there you might help DNR look for the guy that fell overboard near the Bay Bridge the other day. They haven‘t found him yet.”
    “I wasn’t serious,” I countered, “just wishing.”
    The real situation was that I was still recovering from abdominal surgery in early December and forbidden by doctor’s orders from activities that involved lifting anything heavier than a six-pack for at least three more weeks. Launching a boat was out of the question, and springtime had never seemed so far away.
    I reminded myself that the next best thing to fishing was playing with fishing tackle, and I had made promises to myself last season to improve a number of skills. One was my casting accuracy. Lawn casting is a low-impact exercise that would get me out of the house and keep me active.
    I especially needed to work on placing a bait under piers and docks where perch and rockfish hold during warmer months to beat the heat of the climbing sun.
    I had once thought that the fish moved from shallow-water structures to deeper water as the sun rose, especially with a falling tide. However, an accomplished skinny-water angler named Woody Tillery dispelled that idea. Woody’s strategy was based on his experience that, as the sun rose, the fish felt exposed and so tended to congregate in the cooler shaded areas under the piers and docks. The shade rendered the fish mostly invisible to marauding osprey and herons.
    Anglers, however, could cast into those shady refuges as the water level under the structures fell.
    Using that strategy, Woody’s score of white perch was impressive and often included a surprising number of keeper rockfish. It was quite a revelation at the time.
    But I found that method of casting was far from an easy task. An angler needs to practice to become adept, and that is not an on-the-water project. It is an old angling axiom that you can either fish or practice casting, but you can’t do both at the same time.
    I addressed my accuracy issue by constructing light, easily transportable ersatz dock structure with some PVC plumbing pipe and fixtures. Setting up the apparatus on the lawn or a parking lot, I practice casting to and under the target. It’s challenging. The wrist snap necessary to keep the lure trajectory low and accurate is not simple. However, I expect the practice to pay off once I’m back on the water.
    Other techniques for working under or close to these types of structure include flipping, skipping, pitching and shooting. All can be practiced on that same apparatus and are demonstrated in a number of YouTube videos (search on fishing docks). I plan on upping my score considerably next spring by this expansion of my angling repertoire.