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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.

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.

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.

National Aquarium adds baby loggerhead to its family

A loggerhead turtle hatchling from North Carolina is now living the good life at the National Aquarium, free from the dangers facing the threatened species.
    While loggerheads are less likely to be hunted for their meat or shells than other sea turtles, they are seriously threatened by bycatch — the accidental capture of marine animals in fishing gear.
    This new addition joined the Maryland Mountains to the Sea exhibit last month thanks to a partnership with the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores’ Loggerhead Head Start Program, which works to rescue and rehabilitate imperiled hatchlings.
    The little loggerhead will live in the exhibit for one year. Once it has met certain growth and health criteria, it will be tagged and released along the North Carolina coast to be followed by satellite.
    “Sea turtles lead a challenging life and we’re so happy to help give them a better chance at survival,” says Beth Claus of the National Aquarium. “We are proud to be a part of this program and hope the story of this baby loggerhead will help carry home our key messages to the public.”
    Only one challenge remains for the perfect ending to this turtle tale: a name for the hero. You can help. Through January 22, you’re invited to submit suggestions to the aquarium staff. Finalists will be chosen and their names put to a public vote. The winning name will be announced February 1.
    Make suggestions at aqua.org/loggerhead. Or join Bay Weekly’s campaign for Yertle, in honor of the Dr. Seuss classic.

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.

The gods do not subtract from an allotted lifespan the hours spent fishing

There is hardly any human activity more restorative, calming, comforting and just plain relaxing than a day on the water attempting to convince a fish to bite your line.
    Lots of popular recreational activities offer competition, strenuous exercise, adrenaline surges and challenge. Fishing promises quiet contemplation, fine scenery and communion with nature — with the outside chance of scoring a healthy meal.
    It is not a particularly strenuous sport. Other than casting out your bait or lure, most of your time and attention is spent waiting for the fish to decide whether or not to eat it. That pretty much puts any pressure for success directly in the hands — or fins — of the fish, leaving your mind free to wander.
    Search the word fishing online, and you’ll get over a half-billion hits. The next most popular sport, golfing, scores scarcely five percent of that number. Not bad for a game that simply requires at its most basic, a pole, some string, a hook and a worm and a good-looking piece of water.
    Children take to fishing like few other activities, which is proof positive of its basically pure and simple nature. Older men revel in its intricacies and total absorption of the self. As the novelist Thomas McGuane said, “Angling is extremely time consuming. That’s sort of the whole point.”
    I have devoted a great portion of my life to chasing fish and have never regretted a single moment. In fact, I’m a firm believer in the adage, You can never fish too much; it just can’t be done.
    One of America’s favorite sons, the author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau, is often credited with saying, “Many men go fishing their whole lives without ever realizing that it isn’t the fish they are after.” That may be the reason that the sport is so consuming and restive. It gives opportunity for philosophical reflection without the actual decision to indulge in such highbrow activity.
    I’ve never slept better than after a day on the water; that alone is an important thing in this fast-paced civilization that we’ve created. Now more than ever, our health and well-being depend on finding ways to relax and take in life.
    The secret of a happy and content life: The best time to go fishing is whenever you can.

A healthy garden for a healthy life

Gardening is the most popular of all hobbies, and for good reason. Gardening gives you hours of relaxation and great satisfaction. It is good exercise. It forces you to go outside, bringing you closer to nature. It can be enjoyed by all ages. Getting children interested in gardening can have life-long consequences. On the other hand, you are never too old to start.
    Dorothy Frances Gurney, a poet of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, says it all in God’s Garden:
    The kiss of the sun for pardon;
    The song of the birds for mirth;
    One is nearer God’s heart in the garden;
    Than anywhere else on earth.
     In Maryland, ornamental horticulture is the second largest agriculture income-producing industry. In the U.S., it ranks third. Its popularity increases as we learn more about horticultural therapy and the benefits gained from eating fresh fruits and vegetables, especially growing your own. Organic gardening has also attracted many into the field.
    Gardens can range in scope from a few potted plants to flowers and herbs to vegetable gardens to an entire landscape. Whatever it’s size, your garden — and satisfaction — will thrive if you recognize that gardening is a science. Many problems can be avoided by following proven practices and by applying the knowledge gained by controlled scientific studies.
    As you imagine your garden over winter, keep a few of those proven practices in mind. Vegetables, fruits, many annual flowers and ornamentals want sun, so locate your garden where it will receive full sun. Nothing — not fertilizers, compost nor pruning practices — can substitute for full rays from the sun.
    Consider your soil, as well. Very few horticultural plants can grow in poorly drained soils. Acid or very alkaline soils are also factors, as many species have very particular preferences.
    Nutrition is as important to the success of growing plants as a proper diet is for our wellbeing. The benefits of organic matter not only include nutrients but also improved soil potential. Chemical fertilizers cannot always substitute equal benefits.


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

Eagles mark a turn toward the ­season of birth

Editor’s note: Bay Weekly readers voted wildlife artist and journalist John W. Taylor, of Edgewater, Best Bay Artist this year. A keen observer of nature, Taylor believes that spring begins here on the winter solstice, December 21, when daylight begins its six-month, minute-by-minute stretch. His book Chesapeake Spring collects his observations and paintings of that season, from which we reprint the first of those observations.


West River, December 26
    The sun had the afternoon sky to itself but for a lone swirl of high cloud, pale against deep azure. The river rested unruffled, touched with the same blue. Across its broad reaches near the far shore, a raft of ducks relaxed, most of the sleeping heads tucked into back feathers. A closer look revealed a gathering of squat little ruddies, tails cocked skyward. Beyond, gulls loitered on wharf pilings. (Gulls always seem to have plenty of time to stand around, doing nothing.) And half a dozen swans tipped peacefully in the shallows.
    A shrill cackling from above shattered the calm. I looked up just as an eagle folded its wings and plummeted earthward. After falling several hundred feet, it threw out its legs and flared up into the path of another eagle. The two tumbled together awkwardly for a moment, then recovered composure as they gained altitude. Tracing slow, lazy circles in the blue, they came together several times, almost brushing wings.
    From that height they could look down on all of West River and on their eyrie, an accumulation of sticks and small branches in the highest fork of a white oak. Half of the mass had been dislodged during a recent storm and had fallen into the lower portions of the tree. Repairs will have to be made within the next few weeks, before egg laying begins.
    The eagles did not call again, nor show any courtship activity, but that brief bit of interplay marked a turn toward the season of birth and renewal — toward spring. Yet by the calendar it was winter that had just begun.

Control winter weeds now, as they’ll be bigger come spring

Winter annual weeds tend to sneak up on you.
    Have you looked at your garden lately? When you do, don’t be surprised if you see a green carpet being woven by winter annual weeds. Annual bluegrass, chickweed, cranesbill and henbit are pretty small now. But if you don’t get out there and control them, they will be much larger next spring.
    It takes more than hoeing to bring them under control. If you simply hoe them out of the ground and leave them lie, they will soon generate new roots and resume growth. After hoeing, rake them up and put them in your compost. Adding weeds provides compost with much-needed nitrogen. The weeds are also succulent and full of water, and the little bit of soil attached to their roots provides inoculum to help in degrading leaves. You need not worry about winter weeds contaminating your compost pile with seeds because these weeds are still in their juvenile form and have not started flowering, which they must before they can produce seeds.
    If you prefer not to disturb the soil by hoeing, use horticultural vinegar, to which these weeds are very sensitive. However, you have to spray the foliage thoroughly to obtain good results. Chickweed takes repeated applications because its foliage is very dense with many overlapping leaves. The first application of horticultural vinegar will only kill the exposed leaves. Make a second application after the first layer of leaves has disintegrated.
    Winter weeds will grow all winter long. They can even grow under snow cover. Trying to kill them with organic mulches is a waste of time. I have seen these weeds grow under the cover of mulch. It is surprising how little light they need to survive. However, covering them with black plastic or tarpaper is effective. Avoid black landscape fabric; it has sufficient pin holes to allow them to continue growing.
    Get a jump on spring gardening by controlling winter weeds now.


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

Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel rises from endangered to thriving

It’s another win for the wildlife. One of the first animals on the endangered species list, the Delmarva fox squirrel is now a conservation success story.
    Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the squirrel from the list after 48 endangered years. The animal is no longer at risk of extinction thanks to a half century of federal protection and conservation, such as closing hunting and expanding its habitat.
    The fox squirrel’s habitat differs from the home grounds of the more familiar common gray squirrel. Fox squirrels prefer the quiet forests of the Delmarva Peninsula, not suburban or urban areas. With more than 80 percent of the squirrel’s home range on private land, this animal has thrived on the rural, working landscapes of the peninsula, where mature forests mix with agricultural fields.
    Delmarva fox squirrel numbers fell sharply in the mid-20th century when forests were cleared for agriculture, development and timber harvesting. Hunting also contributed to the loss. Today the squirrel’s home range is up from four to 10 counties. Population is as high as 20,000, federal biologists say.
    This silvery gray species is larger than other squirrels, with a wide fluffy tail, short stubby ears and a wider head. The forest-dwellers eat nuts, seeds, acorns and sometimes flowers, fruit, fungi and insects. They spend a lot of time on the ground. Rather than jumping from tree to tree, Delmarva fox squirrels will climb down a tree and travel on the ground to the next tree.
    Keep an eye out for them in places like the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge and the remote forests of Dorchester and Talbot counties. Report your sightings to the Chesapeake Bay Field Office to support the continuing study of our wildlife: fws.gov/chesapeakebay.