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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.

You don’t have to be a financial whiz kid to understand incompetence

Michael Burry (Christian Bale: ­Exodus: Gods and Kings) is always on the lookout for a new investment.
    Investigating the housing loan market, Burry discovers that its bottom is about to fall out. Predicting a collapse, he uses his fund’s money to short the housing values. In essence, he bets against the lending system that has been the bedrock of American banking.
    Burry’s theory gets the attention of investor Mark Baum (Steve Carell: Freeheld). Anticipating the coming global storm, Baum must decide whether to join Burry in profiteering or sound the alarm.
    Glib, informative and fast-paced, The Big Short won’t put you to sleep. Director Adam McKay (Anchorman 2) achieves quite a feat in making an exciting movie about stocks, loans and mortgages — without high-speed chases, guns or a cool heist subplot. McKay goes to great pains to explain even the most confusing financial concepts entertainingly. Want to know about sub-prime mortgages? Margot Robbie (Focus) explains them while sipping Champagne in a bubble bath. Interested in how banks create AAA-rated mortgages using small mortgages that are rated B or below? Chef Anthony Bourdain talks you through it while whipping up a fish stew.
    These quirky bits of humor are McKay’s strong suit, tricking you into caring about the financial market and simplifying long boring concepts.
    Less sound is the film’s emotional beat. Each character gets a single distinguishing trait but very little in the way of development. Bale is the oddball genius. Carell is a loudmouth with a heart of gold. Brad Pitt is into organic foods. Characters exist only to move the storyline, so it’s hard to care about Carell’s home life or the tragedy that haunts him.
    McKay’s visual style is frenetic. Whenever the pace lags, he bombards us with footage of news events, publicity photos — anything and everything he can think of — to keep our focus while explaining mortgages. After the eighth montage, the style gets annoying.
    The movie is a good investment if you’re in the market for an entertaining look at banking and how it almost ruined our country.

Good Drama • R • 130 mins.

Just what a Star Wars film should be: silly, exciting fun

Long ago in a galaxy far, far away millions of Star Wars fans were despondent when George Lucas offered them three prequels that ruined the mythology of the beloved originals.
    Fans can rejoice, for now there is another.
    Taking over the franchise under Disney after its purchase from Lucas, director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) proves the force is strong with him. He has produced a miracle: an entertaining new Star Wars film.
    Set decades after Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) helped the rebels crush the empire, The Force Awakens reveals that this trio has not lived happily ever after. The Empire fell, and in its place rose the fascist military First Order, determined to quash free thought and the remainder of the Republic. Leia, now a general in the rebel army, still fights to save her galaxy from oppression.
    Luke, now the last of the Jedi, has ­disappeared. But his powers are essential to victory.
    Filled with nostalgia, action and comedy, The Force Awakens is exactly what a Star Wars film should be: silly, exciting fun. Abrams carefully sets the stage for his new cast of characters while letting the audience catch up with old favorites. He also embraces practical effects, making alien interaction more fun to watch.
    There are a few problems. Big dramatic moments are telegraphed early; You’ll probably be able to guess how the film ends by the 30-minute mark. But plotting missteps are outweighed by the joy of watching favorites fight for the Light Side. Han and Chewie dash onto the bridge of the Millennium Falcon in one such joyful moment. New characters are fun and engaging, so it’s not a chore as the stage is set for the next two films.
    The Force Awakens has already broken pre-sale records around the globe. If you’ve bought your tickets, I’m happy to reassure you that your money is well spent.

Good Sci-Fi • PG-13 • 135 mins.

Believe it or not, winter’s here

As the sun sets, look in its wake for Mercury just above the southwest horizon. Binoculars will help. Mercury is on its way up to a fine showing through Christmas and New Year’s.
    Before dawn, Venus, Mars and Jupiter stretch above the horizon in the southeast. A little below Mars is Spica. Saturn rises just before the sun and is far to the lower left of Venus, so low that you may need binoculars to spot it.
    Tuesday at 11:48pm EST, the sun reaches its southernmost position in the sky, hovering directly over the Tropic of Capricorn at 231⁄2 degrees south latitude. This solstice, literally sun stands still, marks the start of winter for us in the Northern Hemisphere. The sun rises and sets at its farthest point south, traveling a low, shallow arch from horizon to horizon in the shortest day of the year, with a meager 9 hours 28 minutes of sunlight in Chesapeake Country.
    Watching the sunrise or sunset, you will notice the sun pause for a number of days, but then it slowly inches northward on the sky’s dome. A great experiment for kids of all ages is to use an east- or west-facing window to mark with a grease pen or piece of tape the point where the sun meets the horizon each day or night.
    Solstice coincides with the Ursid meteor shower, which typically peaks at five to 10 meteors an hour but occasionally has bursts of 100 or more. The waxing gibbous moon sets before dawn, so that’s when you’re likely to see the most activity.

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.

This whale of a tale doesn’t live up to the book

When The Essex leaves port in 1820, first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth: Vacation) tells his pregnant wife he’ll be back soon. The whaler leaves port in search of whale oil to fill 2,000 barrels and keep the lights on in American homes.
    Over-fishing is beginning to take a toll on the theretofore hugely profitable industry of whaling. Over a year out to sea, the Essex is far from reaching its quota. Tensions become near mutinous between Chase, an experienced seaman, and Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker: Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight), a wealthy seafaring scion captaining his first voyage.
    In Ecuador, a one-armed captain tells them of rich whaling grounds in the middle of the Pacific. He warns them, however, of a demon white whale that killed most of his crew and relieved him of his arm. Pollard and Chase laugh off the mangled captain’s warning.
    As the men of the Essex prepare to lay waste to pod after pod of sperm whales, a white behemoth surges from the sea. This whale is basically a waterlogged Smokey the Bear on steroids. Instead of proclaiming only you can prevent over-fishing, he thrusts through the hull of the Essex, ripping its mast down onto the crew. Forced to abandon ship, the men throw what they can into three small rowboats.
    Adrift in the Pacific, the Essex whalers are hundreds of miles from land. Their fate worsens when Smokey the Whale pops up again.
    Can the crew survive a conservation-minded whale and the unforgiving sea?
    If this story of a demonic white whale reminds you of high school, it’s because the true story of the Essex inspired Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick.
    In the Heart of the Sea offers cracking action, but it lacks the poetry and introspection of Melville’s masterpiece.
    Director Ron Howard (Rush) knows how to create dramatic action. It’s awe-inspiring and terrifying when the whale emerges from the depths of the ocean. The whale stalks the deep, waiting for his moment to strike. The magnitude of the threat — this whale can bash men to bits with a flick of its tail — is beautifully emphasized by overhead shots.
    The crew of the Essex, however, are not as nuanced or interesting as this computer-generated whale. Only Hemsworth, who subjected himself to a startling physical transformation, gets any character development. His Chase is a natural leader with a chip on his shoulder, a cliché, perhaps, but Hemsworth’s commanding presence sells the underwritten role. Walker is relegated to a thankless antagonist, while the crew remains largely nameless.
    Howard also bookends his film with superfluous scenes showing Melville tracking down the last survivor of the Essex for the true story. He’d have done better developing the crew so that we’re on Team Whale for the voyage.
    Beautiful to look at but unsatisfying as a story, In the Heart of the Sea is an epic tale of wasted potential.

Fair Adventure • PG-13 • 121 mins.

The characters we know and love reimagined to renew your spirits

After penning A Christmas Carol in six weeks, Charles Dickens explained himself: “I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.”
    Over 172 years later, a mixed cast of children and adult actors from Twin Beach Players is keeping their spirits into his Ghost of an idea.
    Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future — these and all the characters we’ve come to know and love are reimagined at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maryland in North Beach.
    After startling, supernatural visits by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, and the collective spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future, Ebeneezer Scrooge transforms. The stingy curmudgeon choking joy out of life reawakens on Christmas Day to generous and compassionate sensibilities.
    Company president Sid Curl, directing, has united cast and crew in an admirable production. Impressive lighting and simple blocking allow actors to easily move about the two-level painted set. Youthful chorus members sing familiar holiday carols throughout the show, positioned onstage in front of stage techs that rotate set flats behind them. Character-appropriate period costumes and make-up help to instill a credible antiquated element to the performance.
    A. Gorenflo’s Scrooge is richly physical. Rick Thompson’s lamenting Jacob Marley is grim and imposing. The three Ghosts convey individuality: Eden Bradshaw’s portrayal of Christmas Past is fairy-like and newcomer Andrew Macyko’s Christmas Future is silent and unsettling. Katie Evans’ Christmas Present is especially strong and believable.
    Cameron Walker’s Bob Cratchit and his family convey a sweet innocence, while E.J. Roach’s Fred Holloway refuses to be tainted by his uncle Scrooge’s ill ­temperament.
    Other artistic and technical components, including a boldly choreographed dance sequence, combined to illustrate the timeless lessons of Dickens’ work.
    Step into this little theater at the beach to enjoy the charming experience of a Christmas classic in a 19th century English town. Step out with renewed spirits.


FSa 7pm, Su 3pm thru Dec. 13, Boys and Girls Club, 9021 Dayton Ave., North Beach, $15 w/discounts, rsvp: twinbeachplayers.com.

The Geminids can really deliver

Dropping temperatures and long nights — combined with this week’s new moon — make for some of the best sky-watching. The sun still sets well before 5pm, and within another 90 minutes the sky is truly dark. Coupled with the darkness, the cold weather knocks any humidity from the air, providing crisp, undistorted views of the stars and planets.
    As evening twilight deepens, December’s sky is filled with familiar figures. To the west are the lingering constellations of summer, Aquila the eagle, Lyra the harp and Cygnus the swan, the brightest stars from each making the familiar asterism of the Summer Triangle. Cygnus is also known as the Northern Cross, as this time of year it stands upright above the horizon.
    To the north is the familiar shape of the Big Dipper, which is itself a part of Ursa Major, the great bear. Below it is the Little Dipper, host of the North Star Polaris, around which the entire celestial sphere revolves.
    High overhead is W-shaped Cassiopeia the queen and Cepheus the king, which looks more like a bishop’s miter than a king’s crown. Beneath them is their daughter Andromeda, flanked by the square of Pegasus to the west and the hero Perseus to the east.
    Rising in the east in the evening are the constellations of winter. There’s Taurus the bull, pursued by Orion the hunter, his hourglass shape one of the easiest to make out. Trailing Orion is Canis Minor, the Little Dog, and Canis Major, the Big Dog, home to Sirius, the brightest star in the Northern Hemisphere. Standing high over the east horizon by 10pm are the Gemini twins.
    Keep your eyes on those two this week, as they are the apparent source for the consistently best meteor shower of the year, the Geminids. There’s no interfering moonlight, and unlike other meteor showers, you don’t have to wait until the wee hours for the best of this show. This year’s peak, in the dark hours Sunday to Tuesday, can produce more than 100 meteors in an hour. The meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, but traced backward they all appear to radiate from Castor and Pollux in Gemini. By midnight this radiant is almost directly overhead.
    The Geminids are unique, in that their parent is the asteroid 3200 Phaethon, while all other meteor showers are spawned by comets. In either case, as these frozen interlopers near the sun in their orbit around the solar system, some of their matter melts off into bits of stellar debris that burst aflame as they carom into earth’s atmosphere.
    As daybreak approaches, Gemini is high in the west. By that time Jupiter, now rising around midnight, is high in the south, trailed by Mars and much closer to the horizon Venus in brilliant glory

Not too cold, please, these penguins beg

Winter is creeping up, leading us through frost to cold to ice and snow. That’s weather that will chill the newest penguin residents of the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore as much as it will you and me.
    As African penguins, the newly hatched pair prefers moderate temperatures like those predicted for this week, between about 41 and 68 degrees. So the zoo’s main conservation center building, where they nest comfortably with their parents Mega and Rossi, has controlled temperatures.
    “With African penguins, both the male and the female take turns sitting on the eggs,” said Jen Kottyan, avian collection and conservation manager. “Once the eggs hatch, parents take turns caring for their offspring; they each protect, feed, and keep the chick or chicks warm for two to three days, then switch off.”
    The downy grey juveniles will soon learn how to swim. Then they will slowly meet the rest of the penguin colony.
    The month-old siblings are the first chicks to hatch this breeding season. Penguin chicks spend 38 to 42 days in the egg before hatching. In zoos, keepers monitor development of the eggs by candling them about a week after they are laid to see if they are fertile and developing. The eggs are then reunited with the parents.  The chicks’ parents supply their early diet of regurgitated fish.
    At about three weeks, keepers begin hand rearing chicks to acclimate them to humans as their source of food. 
    The Maryland Zoo has been ­invested in penguins since 1967. Since 2009, African penguins have been endangered in the wild.
    At the zoo, you’ll see the largest African penguin colony in North America, with over 60 birds in the new “highly dynamic” Penguin Coast exhibit.
    Expect a noisy place, as African penguins have loud, braying calls that earn them the nickname jackass penguin.
    You won’t be able to visit these chicks until they’re several months old, but you can follow their growth and development online: ­www.marylandzoo.org; ­www.facebook.com/marylandzoo.