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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.

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.

From boxwood to white pine, you have many evergreen choices

Here in Bay 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.
    A few species don’t retain their needles and should be avoided, among them hemlock, Norway spruce, Cryptomeria, red cedar and Japanese privet.
    You need not worry about damaging your ornamentals by pruning them this time of year, when the plants are dormant. If you limit your pruning to stems one inch or less in diameter you will not stimulate them into growth or make them more susceptible to winter injury.
    Boxwoods, another long-lasting holiday green, take another pruning approach, borrowed from Colonial times: breaking off branches for 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 in 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.
    By breaking branches 12 to 14 inches long, you punch holes through the boxwood canopy, allowing light to penetrate into the center of the plant. 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 during summer months with hedge or pruning shears increases your odds of spreading these diseases from plant to plant with the tools.
    Increase the life of decorative 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.
    Spraying the foliage with Plant Shine after it has been in warm water for about an hour will improve the appearance and help reduce the need for water. Plant Shine is just as effective but less messy than Wilt-Pruf or Vapor Gard.


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

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.

Gardening tools you can count on

Shopping for a gardener? Don’t skimp on price; buy quality tools that last.
    These are my long-time favorites:
    A Japanese gardener’s knife is especially valuable for dividing perennials in the spring. The blade, about two inches wide, is cupped for digging. I also use my Japanese gardener’s knife in place of a trowel for planting. One edge of its blade is saw-toothed, while the other can be sharpened. I carry it in a sheath attached to my belt.
    The Garden Bandit hoe has a long rake handle and stainless steel head with a corrugated blade that stays sharp. I use the small Garden Bandit for hoeing onions and closely spaced plants and the medium blade Garden Bandit for all other weeding work.
    My seven-tine manure fork turns the compost pile, then loads and spreads compost in the garden. I also use it to load plant waste to be deposited in the compost bin.
    Felco and Corona pruners and loppers are tops. They keep their cutting edge with very little sharpening. To prevent injury (and keep them sharp), store hand pruners in a shear case attached to your belt.
    Long-reach pruners eliminate the need to climb ladders as they enable you to reach branches eight to 12 feet above your head.
    Okatsune shears, made from the same process used for making Samurai swords, are the right tool for shearing plants. Long handles make these sharp shears easy to use.
    Edger/cultivators: My favorite for cultivating the vegetable garden is an old 409 one-wheel cultivator with Nebraska blades. It provides great exercise and does a better job of killing small weeds than my Troy-Bilt edger/cultivator. The Troy-Bilt, however, works well for edging the gardens and loosening the vegetable garden when it becomes too compacted for the old 409.


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

I’ve got a couple more big rockfish to catch before December 20

The last of the rockfish season is a particularly difficult time for me.
    As always, I’m hoping for one last good day on the water. I’ve caught a fair number of rockfish the last few trips, including a great 30-inch fish on a recent afternoon under the birds off of Poplar Island. Yet none has given me the feeling of that last hurrah. For that you need a couple of big fish.
    All around, friends tell me of 28- to 36-inch fish brought to the boat on days I’ve been absent. Tales of sea lice and bright, thick rockfish have keep me up at night while I scheme to get back in serious action despite the nasty winds and rain that have plagued my scheduled days.
    Taking a couple of weeks off in late October and early November to do some bird hunting cost me dearly. I lost touch with the bite and with fish movement. Even now I’m pretty much clueless as to finding the fish, the good fish anyway.
    My error has been in chasing rumors and planning only short trips with a simple Plan A but no B or C. That’s not a new story. Spending a couple of days searching and fishing a logical pattern should solve that problem. The remaining problem now is getting those days.
    The late mild weather has been very encouraging. Looking at the most recent forecasts, I’m guessing if I stay ready there will be good opportunities with temps in the 50s for long stretches. Rain will be the only impediment, and that can always be worked around.
    Reports from anglers fishing bait have been alarmingly good for this late in the season. I may have to try. Fresh menhaden remains available at some sports stores. Most of the success stories, however, have come from trollers. In trolling the key to success is finding the fish, and that takes persistence.
    The white perch scene is also promising and tempting. Fishing near Poplar Island last week, we noticed perch on our electronic finder at 50 feet, stacked up thick off the bottom. Reports have similar gatherings around the Bay Bridge and around the deeper channels of the tributaries.
    So I am gathering up my Bomber Rigs. The Bomber is a bright, feathered, two-ounce, metal jig rigged on a leader with a smaller dropper fly about 12 inches above.
    Fished vertically just off the bottom, this setup is deadly on perch. Down deep, big lurking rockfish have been known to smack it hard.
    I could use a couple more Ziplocks filled with perch fillets to get me through the next few months, and a few extra rockfish are always welcome.
    In the last few days of rain, I’ve used the time to clean up my tackle and prepare for one last assault. With luck, I will be able to face the last day of rockfish season, December 20, with a smile.
    Otherwise, well, there will always be next year. And, of course, the yellow perch will start running in just a couple more weeks.

Without them, Christmas would be a lot less colorful

In equatorial zones, poinsettias grow like weeds. But a touch of our winter is killing. How these tropical natives have become the flower of Christmas is a story of careful science in the greenhouse and ingenuity in marketing.
    “Most mother plants are grown offshore, in Nicaragua, Costa Rica or Kenya,” says Ray Greenstreet, whose Greenstreet Gardens is a major grower for our homes and for wholesalers.
    In June and July, Greenstreet and other growers bring in cuttings and root them in greenhouses. By late July and early August, plants are transplanted into display pots.
    The length of day light controls the plant’s growth and coloring. Flower buds form only when daylight is less than 12 hours.
    “In the long days of summer, we want to keep them vegetative as they grow to a certain size,” Greenstreet explains. “Then about September 23, days get shorter than nights, which naturally initiates blooming.”
    Traditionally, light and shade were controlled in greenhouses so plants bloomed sequentially. In the last quarter century, plants have been bred for seasonal blooming.
    “Early-season poinsettias bloom around November 15,” Greenstreet says, “and others bloom as late as mid-December. We grow a number of different bloom-response times, so we have nice fresh plants through the season.”
    For shipping around the country, Greenstreet roots about 185 varieties, in colors ranging from whites to mauves and lots of reds.
    “Right before 9/11,” Greenstreet says, “mauve or pink were selling well.” After the terrorist attacks, he continued, “people went back to tradition, and all they wanted for a couple seasons was red or white.”
    Now, variety is back. At Greenstreet you can choose from some 80 varieties, differing in leaf form as well as color.
    Buy your poinsettia when the temperature is above 36 degrees, packaged in a sleeve. Keep it warm in the car and bringing it in. At home, keep it away from drafts at a temperature between 60 and 70 degrees, in average light and evenly moist. Don’t let it sit in water. Carry it to a sink for watering, and let it drain before you put it back on display.
    Finally, don’t worry if your baby or cat has a bite. Poinsettias don’t taste good but are not toxic, both Greenstreet and Bay Gardener Frank Gouin confirm.

On the hunt in November

The antlered buck posed statue-like in full-focused attention in a valley surrounded, at a fair distance, by the houses of Fairhaven Cliffs. Perhaps he’d seen me seeing him from my perch well above him, but not assuring him safety were I a bow hunter. That hunting season lasts most of November, the month — this odd sighting reminded me — when Maryland’s 227,000 deer are at their most visible.
    November is rutting season, when bucks go in search of mates, and here one was, where deer, especially bucks, are not everyday sightings. The does and their families, our usual visitors, prefer Kudzu Valley, across the village, where groundhogs are the only neighbors. This was not the only buck I’d seen this month, when deer in Chesapeake Country are about as common as squirrels, and just about as oft seen dead along the roadsides.
    Not only are deer out and about in November, they are single-minded, both males and females hormonally driven to mate — as well as driven to distraction. Thus deer-vehicle crashes peak in November as well, bringing death to over 10,000 deer — and often injury to people as well as to their vehicles.
    The end of mating season coincides with the opening of the modern deer firearms season on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. That’s when most of the deer harvested in a year are taken. Last year 95,863 deer were harvested.
    From November 28 through December 12, hunters will be out in search of deer. So maybe for that time you should leave the woods to them.

How to find hot wintertime fishing

A big El Nino winter is expected, possibly moderating Maryland temperatures. That’s good news for anglers wanting to get in a few extra rockfishing trips, as the season remains open until December 15 on the Bay and year-round oceanside.
    Despite El Nino’s predicted warming effect, however, planning any fishing trip this time of year means getting good information on weather conditions. A 10-day forecast is a good place to start.
    I refer first to the temperatures and, because I have a small skiff open to the elements, eliminate any day predicted to be under 50 degrees, especially as damp, salty air always seems to be extra cold. Even if you have a 30-footer with a heated cabin you will be forced out into the open when the action starts.
    Next, look to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Forecast for guidance on wind speed, direction, precipitation and sea conditions. The first two days of the forecast are generally on target. The third day can be fairly accurate; thereafter, refresh your data as your target date gets closer. Expect significant change.
    On the Bay, winds above 10mph are not recommended for open boats. The seas push higher, and the resultant wind chill can make things very uncomfortable, even dangerous.
    Wind direction is also important, especially if it is from the northwest or southeast. Those directions mean the wind is coming the full length of the Bay, and that has an amplifying effect on wave height.
    For real-time local conditions, look to the Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System at buoybay.noaa.gov/locations. Constant reports originate at 10 Bay locations. The rule I follow is that if any two weather sources are in conflict, expect the harsher version to be the more accurate.
    If you’re a shore-bound angler, dress warmly, have extra clothing handy and carry a hot beverage. Temperatures should be above freezing; otherwise your line will ice up in the rod guides.
    Fishing the colder months also means the fish will react differently to bait or artificial lures. Expect very hesitant, almost imperceptible bites. If you’re working lures, do it slowly and methodically; when you feel a bump, react deliberately, staying poised to drop back to give the fish another chance if you feel no resistance.
    Bait anglers will have to watch their rod tips like hawks and will still find their baits stolen. Adding scent such as menhaden and shedder-crab oil to your baits can pay extra rewards this time of year. Jumbo bloodworms are worth the extra cost. Rockfish metabolisms have slowed with the declining temperatures, so they will not eat as often or as much as during warmer months. Persistence and patience are critical to success.
    There can be excellent big-striper action in winter around Ocean City (minimum size 28 inches, limit one fish). The inlet, particularly, is a haven for big fish that can be jigged up or caught on live bait. The surf fishing can also be excellent, and fly and light-tackle anglers working parallel to the shoreline, just behind the break, have hooked up with some giants.