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Good health or the Lemming Effect?

Charging into a nearly freezing body of water in the middle of the winter is a tradition for people around the world. Frequently, the plunge is made on New Year’s Day.
    The first New Year’s Day Polar Bear Plunge is credited to Coney Island, New York, in 1903. Founder Bernarr Macfadden believed that a dip in the ocean during the winter could be “a boon to stamina, virility and immunity.” The Coney Island Polar Bear Club takes ocean plunges every Sunday from November through April, with the largest on New Year’s Day.
    The notion that cold water could have health benefits probably came to America with European immigrants, who believed that cold-water dips, alternating with sauna or steam baths, promoted good health.
    Boston has the second-oldest New Year’s plunge, started in 1904 by a group called the L Street Brownies.
    January brings two plunges to Chesapeake Country.
    The new year begins with a Polar Bear Plunge in North Beach at 1pm. It’s a free event with all welcome. Register by December 28 or on the day ($25) to record the moment with a T-shirt and certificate and support Calvert Meals on Wheels.
    At the end of January, the Maryland State Police and Maryland Special Olympics invite plungers into the Bay at Sandy Point State Park. The 21st annual Polar Bear Plunge has become so large that it stretches over three days, January 26 to 28, with the main event Saturday: www.plungemd.com.
    “The first year I think there were 300 plungers,” says Jason Schriml, of Special Olympics of Maryland. “We are anticipating 7,000 for Saturday this year but will have around 10,000 for all three days.”
    Last year’s plunge raised nearly $2.3 million for Special Olympics.

Scout lures wood ducks to Franklin Point State Park

Wood ducks are swamp-loving birds, so Shady Side, with its historical nickname The Great Swamp, ought to be the kind of place they’d like. All the more so Franklin Point State Park, 477 acres of wood and waterfront on the Shady Side Peninsula, where humans are welcome but not common.
    Wood ducks are welcome, too. To add curb appeal to the park, Boy Scout Reggie Scerbo, 18, of West River, has built and installed seven nesting boxes that satisfy the requirements of the picky and distinctive species.
    The medium-size dabblers have heads shaped like helmets and thick, upright tails. The males stand out like brilliantly colored harlequins. Less visible are the clawed toes that enable them to climb trees to nest in cavities. Lacking trees, they settle for nesting boxes built to just the right specifications.
    “The entrance hole had to face the water, regardless of compass direction,” Scerbo explained. “The height from the ground had to be about six feet, with an oval hole with a diameter of three by four inches. It is also important to put bedding inside the boxes, since wood ducks rely on the rotten wood that would be in a dead or dying tree. A predator guard is also important to keep out snakes, raccoons and other predators.”  
    Reproductive survival is low as the newly hatched ducklings are driven by instinct to flop out of the nest and follow their mother to the water. Nearly 90 percent of wood ducklings die within the first two weeks, mostly due to predation, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program. The vulnerable species was hunted nearly to extinction a century ago.
    Now humans are helping the species recover.
    Scerbo’s box is one of about 1,800 on Maryland public lands, from which some 8,000 chicks were anticipated in 2016.
    The Maryland Wood Duck Initiative recruits volunteers like Scerbo, offering training, site review and box location help as well as providing materials — cypress for the boxes and street sign poles for the supports.
    “Reggie figured out how to make it happen,” said West/Rhode Riverkeeper Jeff Holland. “He worked with experts from the Maryland Wood Duck Initiative to get technical support, cleared the location with the Maryland Park Service and got the help of the Scouts of Troop 249 of Edgewater in assembling and putting in the right place.”
    The ducks helped Scerbo earn the rank of Eagle Scout.
    “We expect a wonderful impact on resurgence of this species in our habitat,” Holland said.

Sure-to-please choices

You’ve tried to choose a gift for the sport in your life, the dedicated angler, canoeist, hiker, shooter or sailor. And you’ve failed.
    The look in an aficionado’s eye on opening a present naively intended to enhance the enjoyment of a particular sport is a dead giveaway. Just what am I going to do with this? Next — but too late to mask the eye movement and expression of astonishment — come effusive explanations of just how special the gift is and how much it is appreciated.
    Here’s how to do better this year. If you are not dead certain that the gift is indeed unique and desirable within the context of that sport —almost impossible if you don’t share the passion — give a gift certificate.
    A certificate for a favorite restaurant is an excellent choice, as is one from a good sporting goods store. If the person in question is keen, sartorial-wise, a certificate from one of the better area clothing stores will may be the ticket. For those impossible to anticipate, I note that liquor stores are beginning to sell holiday gift cards.
    But if you must choose a sporting gift, try something like this. For boaters, a new piece of technological boating gear has recently arrived in retail stores to satisfy a safety requirement of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Weems and Plath electronic flare and emergency SOS light.
    Flares are required to be onboard any craft larger than 16 feet that intends to go on big water or operate at night. Flares inevitably have an expiration date (usually three years hence) and are inherently dangerous to operate.
    This new electronic flare never expires, is safe to use and is superior in terms of visibility and effectiveness of operation. All boaters will eventually possess one of these new devices in lieu of the incendiaries. If you want your skipper to appreciate your thoughtfulness, and to keep safe at the same time, giving one of these new devices is a sure avenue to success.
    LED flashlights are also an ideal gift for the sports inclined, especially the small units with high light output (1,000-plus lumens). These devices can be lifesavers in emergencies. Every car, motorcycle, boat (or other floating or moving conveyance) should have one somewhere onboard.
    They’re also handy for non-sporting occasions as they thoroughly illuminate any dim, dark walks back to an automobile and can effectively (though briefly) blind and ward off anyone who threatens to approach uncomfortably close. The better ones are the size of a small candy bar.
    Another unique LED creation is the Larry Light, a small, inexpensive, bright stick of lights that is directional and magnetized so that it can be attached anywhere there is metal for hands-free illumination of dark recesses. They’re also handy for casual photographic applications.
    The incredibly efficient Yeti brand coolers have become quite popular of late despite their hefty price tags. Yeti also offers hot/cold drink cups and thermos bottles that are unbelievably efficient as well as more affordable. They make an ideal gift for almost anyone.

Get a fast start with my Gouin brew

This is a great time to activate the compost pile. The fallen leaves are rich in nutrients and organic matter. Mother Nature has been using leaves as natural mulch since the beginning of time.
    I begin with my leaf blower, blowing as many leaves as possible under the branches of the shrubs to mulch them over winter.
    For my compost pile, I then use the lawnmower to chop the remaining leaves by mowing the lawn with the blade set at five inches above the ground, starting from the outer-edge of the lawn and working my way into the center. This pushes the fallen leaves into the center of the lawn where I can harvest them easily and transport them to the compost bin. Chopped leaves compost faster than whole leaves.
    With the garden hose handy to spray water on the leaves as I load them in the bin, I lay a 10- to 12-inch layer of chopped leaves and cover it with a uniform layer of leftover compost from last year. To hasten the composting process, I sprinkle about one cup of urea or ammonium nitrate per 10 square feet of area and water thoroughly. Each layer of leaves covered with compost needs to be wet in order for composting to start. Dry leaves do not compost.
    If you do not have leftover compost from last year, make your own compost starter by adding a shovel full of garden soil to a five-gallon pail. Add one-half cup of cheap dish detergent and one cup of urea or ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Stir the mixture well, and sprinkle it over each layer of copped leaves added to the pile. The detergent will help in wetting the leaves, and the ammonium nitrate or urea will provide nitrogen to stimulate the microbes in the garden soil into doing their duty. Five gallons of this Gouin brew is sufficient to cover about 30 square feet of composting area.
    The larger the compost pile, the better. Compost piles smaller than five-by-five-by-five feet will not generally become very active until next spring when temperatures warm. However because of mass, larger compost piles are capable of generating and maintaining high temperatures all winter long — providing the composting materials remain moist.
    A long-shank thermometer of two feet or more is helpful in monitoring microbial activity. You can also see the effects of microbial activity by simply digging into the pile on a cold day, watching the vapors rise and feeling the warmth of the compost. If you did a good job of preparing the pile, rising temperatures should be measurable in two weeks or less. You should also notice significant reductions in volume as temperatures rise. This means that the microbes are digesting the leaf tissues and generating heat and carbon dioxide.


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

They’ll keep us company till the osprey return

Right on time, tundra swans
have dropped from the skies over Chesapeake Country like giant snowflakes. They are big birds, weighing 20 pounds or so in maturity with a six-foot wingspan.
    About December 1, perhaps I heard their raucous cries cutting through the dark of night. Four or five days later on Fairhaven pond, I saw a pair of white birds so big that they couldn’t have been gulls. December 10 the evidence was incontrovertible: a pair flapping over the pond, a couple pair more paddling through the water, skirting the skin of ice.
    That’s modern swan time; used to be they’d arrive reliably for Veterans Day, just as the osprey arrive reliably for St. Patrick’s Day.
    Tundra swans are creatures of cold weather, but the freeze in their Canadian nesting grounds sends them south in search of food. They come as families, parents and a cygnet or two, only four months old and making this two-month flight of thousands of miles from above the Arctic Circle. The big birds fly at about 50mph; they follow the freeze south through Canada, feeling along the way.
    The Chesapeake is a historic wintering spot, and they’ll stay with us from now until earliest spring. So you’ve lots of opportunity to meet them.
    See their loose Vs passing overhead, hear their bark and spy the huge birds close up as small flocks float on Bay marsh ponds and coves, long necks stretched to the muddy bottoms to harvest grasses, clams and other small mollusks. Long-distance flying is hard, hungry work, so it may take a while before those elegant, long necks rise to show you the species-signature black beak.

It all goes back to Hansel and Gretel

In one form or another, gingerbread has been popular since at least mediaeval times.
    “Gingerbread was a favorite treat at festivals and fairs in medieval Europe — often shaped and decorated to look like flowers, birds, animals or even armor,” according to Smithsonian Magazine. “Several cities in France and England hosted regular gingerbread fairs for centuries.”
    Gingerbread became especially popular in Germany, where monks baked the confection starting around the 14th century. Lay bakers then started making the treat and took their recipes extremely seriously, guarding them as family secrets.
    Building gingerbread houses likely started in Germany. Records of gingerbread houses start in the 1600s but became really popular after the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Hansel and Gretel was published in 1812, according to The History Kitchen.
    In the tale, a witch lives in a house made of delicious candy and cookies. The house is a trap she uses to lure children into her home and, eventually, her oven. Somehow the story inspired bakers to create their own baked houses, and people liked them, despite their terrifying associations. Gingerbread houses now range from the simple to the extreme.
    This year, the United Kingdom’s National Trust commissioned a gingerbread house that is astounding. Built by an English cookie making company, the mansion took 15 months and 500 hours to create. It was inspired by Waddesdon Manor and is made up of 66 pounds of butter, 240 eggs and 480 pounds of icing. It is six feet tall and has details that many of us would never imagine going into a gingerbread house, like paintings, beds, chairs and elaborate carpets, all made of confection. See the creation at https://waddesdon.org.uk/whats-on/biscuiteers-manor-in-gingerbread/
    Closer to home, a gingerbread White House is always part of the holiday decorations at The White House. This year’s house is constructed of 150 pounds of gingerbread, 100 pounds of bread dough, 20 pounds of gum paste, 20 pounds of icing and 20 pounds of sculpted sugar pieces.
    Fifty-six more pseudo gingerbread houses, each actually made of Lego bricks, represent each state and territory
    If you have $78,000 to splurge, you can order an organic gingerbread house custom made to look like your own home, adorned with pearls and a five-carat ruby from veryfirstto.com.

From boxwood to white pine, you’ve many evergreen choices

Here in Chesapeake Country, we have an abundance of evergreen plants to choose from. Many — but not all — narrowleaf greens will hold their needles if you treat them right, while adding beauty and aroma to your home. For long-lasting holiday greens, gather arborvitae, Canaan fir, Douglas fir, junipers, Nordman red cedar, red pine, Scots pine and white pine.
    Many broadleaf evergreens will also hold up throughout the holidays. Choose from American holly, cherry laurel, Chinese holly, English holly, English ivy, mountain laurel, pachysandra, periwinkle, rhododendron and southern magnolia. Japanese hollies are plentiful, but their foliage does not stay as attractive for as long as the other varieties.
    Increase the life of greens by cutting one to two inches from the base of the stem as soon as you bring them indoors and immersing them in 100-degree water. Change the water at least every other day.

A Bonus from Boxwood
    Back in colonial days, gardeners pruned their boxwoods by breaking branches just prior to the holidays for use in making decorations. In cold weather, boxwood branches become very brittle and can easily be broken from the main stems. This may seem crude, but it is a very effective method of pruning boxwood and making maximum use of the prunings.
    Boxwood branches have many decorating uses, such as making wreaths, sprays, kissing balls and centerpieces. To increase their longevity in the home, carry along a pail of hot water, about 100 degrees, and immediately place the broken end of the branches in the water. The cold stems will absorb the hot water readily.
    To punch holes through the boxwood canopy thus allowing light to penetrate into the center of the plant, break branches 12 to 14 inches long. Breaks made when temperatures are low are clean and will heal quickly come spring. Another advantage to pruning boxwoods by breaking branches during winter months is you have more time, so you can do a better job. Winter pruning also gives you a head start on spring pruning.
    Still another advantage of breaking branches is that you reduce the chance of spreading canker diseases from plant to plant. Pruning boxwoods with shears during the summer increases the chance of spreading canker-causing diseases from plant to plant.


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

Adjust your dress and technique, and you might still catch one

This is the end my friend, the end.
It hurts to set you free.

Rock legend Jim Morrison’s words echo my thoughts as our rockfish season heads to a close on Dec­ember 20. It has been a fine year chasing my favorite Bay species, and I still hope for a few more encounters.
    I’ve gotten in some good December licks in the past. Jigging around the Eastern Shore rock pile at the Bay Bridge has been memorably productive during this last month. Though I’ve been out of action recently with unexpected boat motor repairs and foul weather, I am itching for another chance or two.
    Just a couple of years ago, a friend and I couldn’t get a jig with a small dropper to the bottom for all the big white perch that were schooled there. The reason? Four- and five-pound rockfish would pounce on the rig before it was halfway down. The year before that, a simple two-ounce jig with a lip-hooked minnow slow bumped along deep shell was the key to lots of striped winter action. I’m planning over the next few days to be trying them all, especially a chartreuse Bernie’s Bomber rig, a two-ounce feather-dressed jig followed with a fluorescent yellow Meushaw jig dropper. Stripers will be my target, but I won’t discard any chunky white perch that decide to jump the rig.
    Both rockfish and white perch are at their dinner-table best this time of year, fat as pigs from fall feeding and as firm as tuna from the deep cold water both species prefer this time of year.
    Of course Maryland’s winter weather will always play a role in deciding when to go.
    Since I’m fishing from a light 17-foot skiff, I’ll stick to windless days with temperatures in the mid-50s and won’t stray too far from the boat ramp. Though in my youth, nothing discouraged me until my rod guides started freezing up, the last few years I’ve discovered the December conditions much more uncomfortable than I remembered them.
    Waterproof (not water-resistant) foul weather coat and pants are a must, even on calm sunny days. It doesn’t take much for an errant bow wave to splash onto the boat and soak your clothes. I don’t care what the advertisements say: No matter what you’re wearing, it won’t keep you warm if it’s wet.
    A good hat is a must. Bring an extra along in case the first blows off while you’re at speed. Gloves are handy but don’t expect to keep them dry, so stay away from fleece. Wool is best. It’s also a good idea to bring a hot beverage in a good-quality thermos, as it will keep your core warm and make everything more comfortable. Limit your alcohol intake. In quantity, alcohol gives the illusion of warming you up while actually dropping your body temp.
    Keep in mind that as the water temperatures fall, especially below 50 degrees, fish will search for their prey more and more by smell and less by vision. Adding a strip of fresh bait to your lures or going strictly to live bait will generally improve your results. Using synthesized potions to make your baits more scent attractive can also be helpful. Slowing your retrieves and lure action to match the lower metabolisms of the cold-blooded quarry is wise.
    Expect extreme patience to pay off more than constant relocation and experimentation.

Why are pelicans still hanging around the Bay so late in the year?

Brown pelicans have become summer residents hereabouts, nesting on Smith and Holland islands in the southern Bay when the water is warm and fish are plentiful. This late fall, however, the big-billed birds have been sighted as far north as Ft. Smallwood Park and Ft. Armistead Park near Baltimore.
    “Seeing them that far north in the Bay in November is notable,” says David Brinker of Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “I don’t remember observations like this in years past.”
    As for explanation, Brinker explains that last month was warm “so the waters of the Bay don’t seem to be cooling as fast as they generally do. This means that fish are more active than usual, so the pelicans can still find food easily. So they’re sticking around longer than normal.”
    In a typical year, pelicans start migrating south in late October or early November. Leaving Maryland, most pelicans end up in Florida or the Caribbean islands for the winter. Some go as far south as the northern part of South America.
    In the Chesapeake, pelicans nearly disappeared in the 1960s and 1970s because the pesticide DDT weakened their eggs. They didn’t return until 1987.
    Now, Brinker says, “We have somewhere between one to two thousand breeding pairs of pelicans every summer. I think part of the reason we’ve had this great expansion of birds is that they’ve discovered the great resource of the Bay ecosystem, especially the menhaden.”
    Odder still, a small flock of white pelicans winters at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore.
    “Thirty to 50 birds have been spending their winters there for the past five or so years,” Brinker said.
    White pelicans spend their summers in the Midwest and west, nesting in freshwater wetlands, then typically wintering along the southern coasts of the U.S. and Mexico.

Once upon a time …

Step into the ancient Chesapeake, and you could have become a crocodile’s dinner. So it’s a good thing all those crocodiles were creature of the Miocene epoch (23 to five million years ago), gone long before Homo sapiens discovered the modern Chesapeake.
    Their remains, however, are still here, along the Calvert Cliffs, as well as in coastal states down to Florida.
    There avid fossil collector George Klein, of Chapel Hill, NC, got to know these ancient crocodiles, called ­Thecachampsa, whose length may have approached 30 feet. He’s gotten to know them in such detail — down to each of the 19 bones that compose their skulls, excluding the lower jaw — that he’s published a book on the beasts and their comparison to living American alligators.
    His book, published in digital and hard copies by Calvert Marine Museum, is of necessity skeletal, as bony fossils are all our two species of large crocodiles — Thecachampsa sericodon and Thecachampsa antiquus — left behind. Skeletal Anatomy of Alligator and Comparison with Thecachampsa is the kind of book you’d read as a fossil collector seeking to identify your finds.
    “I expect that this work will inspire on several fronts and further our understanding of extinct alligators and crocodiles by bringing new finds to light,” says Dr. Stephen Godfrey, curator of paleontology at the museum — and sponsor of its Fossil Club.
    That’s where you’d go to get to know crocodiles, great white sharks and many other ancient denizens of the oceanic pre-Chesapeake. You’d also meet human enthusiasts near and far as the club works with fossil collectors all over the world to advance the field of paleontology and grow the museum’s collection.
    Or you could wait a while and maybe see the real thing.
    “Although crocodilians have not inhabited northeastern North America in several million years, as global climates warm,” writes Godfrey, “perhaps they will someday re-inhabit coastal Maryland.”
    Take a look at all that remains of Thecachampsa at www.calvertmarinemuseum.com/276/CMM-Publications.