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Even eclipsed, this star blinds

If you didn’t already know about the partial solar eclipse just before sunset Thursday, you’re not likely to have solar glasses at the ready. Do not look at the eclipsed sun for even a moment as it can cause lasting eye damage or blindness. But you can still watch safely with little preparation.
    Try projecting the image through binoculars. Cover one lens and aim the other at the sun, pointing the eyepiece toward the floor or a piece of paper until the sun’s orb appears. Bring it into focus, and voila! You may want to use a tripod, and you can use a small telescope in the same fashion.
    Another option for watching the sun is a pinhole projector, a perennial science project requiring only two sheets of white paper and a pin. Poke a clean round hole in a sheet of paper. With your back to the sun, hold the pierced paper between the sun and the second sheet of paper until you see the sun’s inverted image projected onto it. Increasing the distance between the two sheets enlarges the image but decreases its sharpness. Or you can get more elaborate using the same principles with a box large enough to put over your head to create a viewing chamber.
    Here along Chesapeake Bay, the eclipse begins Thursday at 5pm with the sun low in the west. Alas, it will still be in full swing come sunset at 6:17pm.
    The eclipse won’t be your only chance to put a pinhole projector to use. The sun right now is in the midst of a massive solar storm, resulting in sunspots large enough to see with the protected-but-unaided eye.
    Sunspots start as massive magnetic bursts deep within the sun that migrate to its surface. While highly charged, this energy is cooler than the sun itself, thus appearing darker than surrounding areas. Once to the surface, the energy flares into space in what are called Coronal Mass Ejections, which can wreak havoc on satellites and take down sections of the power grid. Already the International Space Station has turned to face away from the sun to limit the damage from this solar storm.
    Out of all this violence comes beauty, too, in the form of the Northern Lights. So keep a lookout, as a solar storm of this magnitude could make them visible this far south. Learn more at SpaceWeather.com.
    The moon returns to view Saturday as a thin crescent very low in the west-southwest. Look to its lower right for Saturn. As the moon waxes into the new week, it shines near the planet Mars.

From pot to rooting medium to placement, these plants have ­special needs

Orchids are becoming one of the most popular potted plants. They have the advantage of long-lasting flowers and very attractive leaves. However, after they have flowered, they are often neglected and only watered on inspiration.
    Orchids are epiphyte, meaning that they obtain most of their moisture from the air through root-like structures. In nature, they live in tropical forests, growing on trunks and branches of trees. The terrestrial forms of orchids, most commonly offered for sale, are sparsely branched with coarse roots.
    The typical rooting medium for growing orchids is fir bark, coarsely ground to provide maximum air movement through the container in which the roots are growing.
    Orchids generally bloom once each year. But with proper care after they bloom, you can have them blooming yearly for many years.
    After the plants have bloomed, you will often notice coarse roots growing outside. This is your cue that the time has come to repot into a larger container. 
    Common potting media guarantees death to the plant. Repot using fir bark.
    Carefully remove the orchid plant from its original container. If the roots are circling to conform to the shape of that pot, gently pull them apart allowing as much of the old fir bark to remain attached as possible. The new container should be at least one size larger than the current container. A shallow container is better than a deep container. Never a container without drainage holes in the bottom because the roots of orchids cannot tolerate standing in water.
    Place a couple of inches of fir bark in the bottom of the container before positioning all of the roots in the pot. Using one hand to support the plant in the middle of the pot, work the fir bark around and between the roots with the other, shaking the plant from side to side and bouncing the container on the potting bench to get the bark down between the roots. With thumbs and fingers, press the bark firmly around the roots.
    Water the plants thoroughly several times immediately after potting to help fine particles of bark fill some of the voids. Water from the top, not by sub-irrigation.
    During winter, the plants should be irrigated twice-weekly and fertilized monthly using a liquid fertilizer. I recommend an organic liquid fertilizer for best results. Do not place the plants near a window, lest they are chilled. Avoid direct sunlight, too. Give your orchids a spot three to four feet from an east- or north-facing window.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

The catching is still good if you can stick with the search

We were almost back home when the fish hit.
    Gulls wheeling about and feeding are the single best indicator of rockfish surface action. Having seen not a single bird — much less any stripers — for more than three hours, we were packing this trip in.
    Fishing farther south or north was out of the question, for the wind was kicking up high, wet whitecaps in both directions.
    In a last desperate stop before the marina, we trolled small white bucktails while hugging a lee shoreline. The trip seemed all but over until the rod right next to my head went down with a strike.
    I grabbed it and set the hook. From the force of its fight, I guessed that it was not a giant, perhaps not even a keeper.
    I lifted and cranked the fish slowly and steadily toward the boat with the short spinning outfit that we had put into play as a trolling rod. Assuming we had a schoolie on the line, I was a bit casual about rod handling — until the fish broke water behind the boat.
    The bright black-lined sides of a striped bass were the sight I expected. So I was stunned when a broad, deep olive flank flashed in the light of our overcast sky. It was a white perch and a big one. Spotting the fish at the same time, my two companions yelled in surprise.
    Frank Tuma, a good friend and the captain of Down Time, the 29 foot C Hawk charter boat we were prospecting from, readied a net. But by that time the fish was alongside, and I could see that it was well hooked.
    That big little devil caused more excitement than a 30-inch rockfish. We laid it out and measured it at 13.25 inches, over citation size. Since big perch have become scarce around the mid-Bay the last two years, it was quite a satisfying catch.
    Circling back, we fixed our attention on the finder and saw a tight school of impressive marks about where the big one had hit. Breaking out some light rods, we rigged them with small jigs. We came up with nothing. The school had apparently moved as we had readied our tackle. Try as we might we couldn’t locate it again.

Back for More
    Rotten weather and busy schedules kept us off the water for almost a full week. When Frank and I finally did more prospecting for that school of perch, our effort paid off.
    Our first pass over the lucky area resulted in four big black-backs, all over 11 inches. Subsequent passes netted more brutes. A four-gallon bucket was filling with those mouth-watering white perch.
    When the bite dropped off after an hour or so, our bucket was over half full. Satisfied, we headed toward the Bay Bridge in search of birds and breaking rockfish.
    Gulls were screaming and circling low around a middle bridge support. We tossed jigs and top-water lures into the melee. These stripers were numerous but just undersized.
    But on the fish finder, Frank noticed suspicious marks deep beneath the breakers. Drifting with our perch outfits, we again scored on black-backs. Ten-inch white perch came up and over the side one after the other, and within half an hour we had filled our bucket.
    Cleaning them back at the marina, we had to admire our great luck. We had located not one but two nice schools of the best-eating fish that swims the Chesapeake. What’s more, we had caught enough for a number of wintertime fish fries.
    Colder weather has signaled an end to the Chesapeake’s more comfortable days. But the catching is still good if you can stick with the search. And the fish, when you find them, are fatter and more delicious than at any other time of year.

It’s a crowded solar system

If you’ve been out before dawn you’ve likely seen Jupiter blazing in the east. Early Friday morning, the gaseous giant shines left of the waning crescent moon. The following morning you’ll find it above the moon and forming a loose triangle with the star Regulus, the heart of Leo the lion.
    The only other naked-eye planets visible are Mars and Saturn, low in the western sky in the darkening twilight. Saturn is fast on the heels of the setting sun, while Mars is farther to the east. Don’t confuse Mars for Antares, the red heart of Scorpius and roughly midway between the two planets.
    Mars has a close encounter Sunday, when Comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) passes within 82,000 miles of the red planet. For comparison, the moon orbits the earth by almost 240,000 miles, and the closest recorded comet to pass us was in 1770 at 1.4 million miles! While a collision isn’t predicted, the comet’s tail will likely engulf the red planet. Even with binoculars you’ll be hard-pressed to see Comet Siding Spring, but a telescope will reveal it above the red planet.
    We have our own close encounter with a comet — Halley’s Comet, no less — in the form of the annual Orionid meteor shower, which peaks late Tuesday and early Wednesday. The comet hasn’t visited the inner solar system since 1986, but each year at this time earth passes through the trail of debris left behind from its countless orbits around the sun. With the waning crescent moon rising shortly before dawn, you might see from 20 to 25 meteors an hour. They can appear anywhere in the sky, but if you trace back their path they radiate from the constellation Orion.
    The sun and moon have a close encounter of sorts Thursday the 23rd, resulting in a partial solar eclipse in the early evening. Be warned: Gazing upon a solar eclipse can cause blindness, and a partial eclipse is all the more dangerous, so look only with a solar filter.
    Just as it takes a full moon for a lunar eclipse like the one two weeks ago, a solar eclipse coincides with new moon, when it passes between sun and earth, blotting out the sun’s disc — or part of it in the case of this partial eclipse.
    Hereabouts the show begins at 5:52pm, with the greatest point of eclipse coming at 6:08, when one-third of the sun is blocked from view. Alas, the sun sets at 6:17 before the eclipse is over.
    Again, do not attempt to watch the eclipse without protective eyewear; use the coming week to find solar glasses or another proper filter.

Time to repot for life indoors

Fall is the time to repot houseplants. During the short daylight hours of late fall, winter and early spring, most houseplants don’t produce much top growth. This rule is especially true of plants that live outdoors during the summer.
    For a plant to grow in a container, it needs room for new roots. Plants are root-bound when their roots fill the pot. Root-bound plants generally stop producing top growth, and they often start blooming profusely. If the roots are left undisturbed, the plants often develop mysterious symptoms. If you ignore the symptoms, the plants deteriorate.
    Repotting does not necessarily mean putting plants into larger containers. Most house plants can be repotted by simply removing the root ball from the container, shaking it to loosen the roots, cutting out some roots and cutting other roots in half to make room for more rooting medium. The freshened plant can be returned to the same container.
    What’s in that new medium makes a big difference in the health of the plant.
    Most commercial potting materials contain mostly peat moss, perlite or vermiculite and milled pine bark. These soilless rooting media should not be called potting soil. They are generally amended with commercial fertilizers sufficient to support plant growth for six to eight weeks. Unless you fertilize these plants after two months of growth, they often show nutrient-deficiency symptoms such as yellowing or dropping bottom leaves.
    Amending commercial medium by one-third volume of compost, such as LeafGro, improves them and reduces your need to fertilize.
    You can achieve better results by making your own potting soil or soilless rooting medium.
    For a good soilless mix, blend equal parts by volume of LeafGro, peat moss and perlite. For every gallon of peat moss, add two heaping tablespoons of dolomitic limestone. Peat moss is very dry; moisten it well during mixing. Store the unused rooting medium in a plastic bag so it will remain moist.
    To make potting soil, mix equal parts by volume garden soil, compost from your garden or commercial compost and perlite. Place the blend in a microwaveable container and microwave at full power for 15 minutes for each gallon of potting soil. Cool before using.
    If more than one-third of your potting soils comes from the garden, repot in porous clay pots rather than glazed or plastic one. Unless soil is very sandy, it holds water and can rot roots without good evaporation.
    Plants potted in mixes containing garden soil don’t need as much water or fertilizer as plants growning in soilless media.
    In porous clay pots, plants growing in soilless rooting media will dry out more rapidly, thus requiring more frequent watering. More frequent watering takes more frequent fertilizing.
    Your plants do better when you give them the pot that’s right for their rooting medium.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

The fish gods may just deliver

I was re-exploring some old territory higher up in one of our broader tributaries when the strike finally came. Working a quiet shoreline in the early morning, I cast out a half-ounce Saltwater Chug Bug near the broad entrance to a tidal pond.
    With just a soft twitch, the lure spit a bit of water, then sank from sight. I wasn’t sure it had been taken by a fish until my rod tip dipped and the line moved up current. Coming tight, I cinched the fish up, and the surface erupted, removing all doubt.
    Launching my skiff earlier that morning, I made a vague and silent promise of especially good personal behavior if the fish gods would only grant me a few rockfish. Later I realized I should have been a little more explicit.

Fickle Fall
    “It’s not all that difficult to catch a rockfish,” a friend of mine once opined. “What is difficult is catching them the way you want to catch them.” He was talking about top-water fishing in the shallows, and his words are ringing especially true this season.
    Surface fishing in the skinny water is a fall activity and generally best at high tides in early morning or evening. Rockfish don’t feel comfortable feeding around a shallow shoreline unless they have low light and a little extra water under their bellies.
    But my recent efforts had been complicated, and mostly thwarted, by wind, too much of it for comfort or consistently from the wrong direction. If the weather was fishable at all, the stiff autumn breezes tended to either hold up an incoming tide (leaving too little water), push it out too early (same effect) or thrash the area too much for working surface plugs.
    Additional complications were the wild temperature swings and the recent full moon. Those two forces seemed to scatter both the bait and the feeding game fish, making finding them difficult. All of these conditions combined for more or less the same results: very few fish, especially top-water types.

Answered Prayers
    This morning, luck seemed heading my direction. Playing the striper gently, I led it to the side of the boat, lifted it in and took its picture. It was my first landing in days, and I wanted solid proof.
    Throwing back out to the same place resulted in an immediate and enthusiastic reception, but I missed the hook set. Working back to the other side of the inlet, I let the area rest a few minutes before throwing another cast back into the sweet spot. It was rewarded by an instant attack and a fish much bigger than the first.
    This guy zigzagged all over the place, throwing water and raising a ruckus before I won. Then I gave the inlet a good 10 minutes to calm down. Suspecting a good gathering of fish, I didn’t want to flush them out with too much activity all at once.
    That proved wise, as after a decent interval I hooked another fat rockfish, then another. I spent a pleasant time on that one site, hooking a striper, fighting and landing it, then waiting until things calmed down before I resumed casting. Six fish landed and three lost seemed like an excellent return as well as one of the more productive outings I’ve had this fall.
    After the morning’s shallow-water bite died off, I kicked the boat up on plane and headed out to deeper water to find some channel edges to fish.
    In my early morning prayer, I had asked to catch rockfish, and indeed I did. The fish measured only 12 inches, the smallest five.

Its far side is always dark to us

The dark hours at week’s end are still brightened by the glow of the waning Hunter’s Moon, which rises mid-evening and dominates the night sky until daybreak. On clear days this week, you may even see the moon in the west after sunrise.
    Over the weekend, the moon travels with the constellation Taurus. Friday it is 10 degrees to the right of the Pleiades star cluster while the bull’s red eye Aldebaran is a little farther below the moon. The brightests stars of the Pleiades form a small but distinct dipper, which makes up the bull’s back. Saturday the moon is much closer to Aldebaran and the Hyades star cluster, which makes up the bull’s face. If the moonlight is too much to discern these stars, wait a day or two until the waning moon has shifted to the west.
    Just like here on earth, half the moon is always illuminated by the sun and the other half facing away from the sun. But as the angle between the sun, earth and moon changes, so does the portion of the moon’s illuminated face that we can see. With the moon waning, the angle is closing, obscuring more of the lunar surface behind earth’s shadow. This darkened section of the moon still faces earth and should not be confused with the so-called dark side of the moon. Better to think of that as the far side of the moon, which faces away from earth. The far side is still bathed in sunlight — we are just never in a position to witness it.
    The moon rotates on its own axis, with one side facing the sun for about two weeks and then facing away from the sun the next two weeks. Over billions of years, earth’s stronger gravitational pull has slowed the moon’s rotation to the point that it spins in synch with its pace around the earth. As a result, one side of the moon faces earth only during new phase, when it is between us and the sun, obscured by the light of day. So we never see the far side of the moon.
    Mars and Saturn pop into view in the wake of the setting sun. Saturn is sinking fast and is visible for less than an hour. Mars is well to the east of Saturn but not quite as bright. Don’t confuse it for the similarly hued star Antares, the heart of the Scorpion wriggling below.
    Jupiter rises around 2am and is high overhead in the east as morning approaches. Over the next month this gaseous giant climbs higher and grows brighter in our pre-dawn sky.

Dry fall following wet summer makes a good show

This year will bring spectacular fall foliage coloration — provided it stays dry.
    That’s what I told the Bay Weekly reader asking for my prediction.
    More rain means that more of the leaves will remain green for a longer period of time, thus reducing the intensity of the red, orange and yellow. If we have a dry fall, a higher percentage of the leaves will turn color at the same time. But because of drier conditions, the foliage will not last long.
    This prediction is made based on our abundance of rain that kept the foliage lush all summer long. Thus, the leaves of deciduous trees have generated an abundance of carotene and anthocyanins, the pigments that generate the red, yellow and orange colors in leaves. Those compounds are present in each leaf but masked by chlorophyll. That chlorophyll deteriorates as days cool and daylight hours shorten, and nitrogen — a major component of chlorophyll — migrates from the leaf tissues down the petiole to accumulate around the vegetative bud at the base of each leaf. 
    In years with a dry growing season, foliage is less lush, and deciduous trees have less foliage. If a dry growing season is followed by a dry fall, the foliage will be bright but of very short duration. If the growing season is dry and we have a wet fall, the foliage will be muted but slow dropping from the branches.
    Not all tree species generate the same colors. Maple trees are known for their bright red and orange colors, while the ash tree is easily recognized by its yellow fall color. A hill in New Hampshire is called Red Hill because most of the trees growing there are sugar and red maples. That hill is highly visible; many make a yearly pilgrimage to see it.
    In southern Maryland, we are lucky because we have an abundance of dogwoods that often begin showing their red colors in late summer. Near wetlands, we have sweet gum and black gum, which contribute red to purple-red colors and are most plentiful. Red maples provide a splash of red to orange-red in both wetlands and on hillsides.
    If we have a dry fall, the scarlet oaks should be spectacular with their deep red leaves. Most of the other oak species provide only a limited amount of yellowing before dropping their leaves. 
    Enjoy.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

The fishing is great; the ­dangers of hypothermia grave

Finally I had to face it; with morning temperatures in the low 50s, socks are a necessity. With regret, I moved my fishing shorts and warm-weather shirts into winter storage last week. Hauling my insulated long-sleeved undershirts and heavyweight long pants from the back of the closet broke the final link with summer. It’s going to be pretty much a cold-weather game from here on out.
    The good news is that the fishing is getting more exciting. With rockfish and bluefish gathering and feeding up for the winter, breaking schools are going to become more and more common. Tossing lures into a cauldron of feeding game fish always provides exciting memories to hold us over until next spring.
    However, there is a serious downside to the colder weather, especially on the water. Hypothermia is a medical term that describes the condition that occurs when your body begins losing heat faster than it can produce it. It’s a dangerous condition. About 1,000 people in the U.S. die from hypothermia every year.
    We are warm-blooded mammals, and our bodies operate under an optimal temperature of approximately 98.6 degrees. Our internal organs — particularly the heart, liver and blood vessels — generate and regulate heat. But if our core body temperature drops more than three degrees, we experience physical and mental dysfunction. From lethargy and confusion, eventual unconsciousness and even death can follow.
    The very old and the very young are at particular risk of hypothermia, the elderly because their bodies have lost some ability to regenerate and regulate heat, the very young because their small body mass can lose temperature rapidly. Extra care must be taken when they are on the water during cold weather.
    During summer months the spray blowing onto us from a moving boat is a refreshing way to cool off, but in the winter that experience invites trouble. The body loses heat much faster when it becomes wet, 25 times faster when immersed.
    A sudden rainsquall in October is no longer just inconvenient and uncomfortable. It now becomes dangerous. Worse is falling overboard. Immersion in 45-degree water can result in loss of dexterity and onset of confusion within five minutes, unconsciousness within 30 minutes and death within an hour — if the victim has not drowned first.
    Waterproof, windproof and heat-retentive clothing are our primary defenses against hypothermia. Foul-weather coats and pants are not only proof against rain and sleet; they are also protection from the wind and help retain body warmth. Fleece, synthetic insulators and wool are ideal heat retainers. Down should be avoided because once it becomes wet, it loses its insulating qualities.
    Don’t ignore gloves and footwear. Although our extremities are not critical to our inner core temperature, getting cold hands or feet is extremely uncomfortable. Both neoprene and wool are excellent materials in harsh marine environments. Always wear a warm hat. It is a myth that the body loses 90 percent of its heat through the head — but not if that’s your only unclothed part.
    Warm beverages give our inner core an extra shot of warmth. Hot cocoa, coffee, tea or plain hot water are effective antidotes to the onset of chill. Avoid or minimize alcohol intake. Alcohol actually promotes body cooling by dilating blood vessels, while giving the illusion of warmth.
    Bring extra clothing on board. When a person gets wet, get them immediately into warm, dry clothes. A Mylar or space blanket is an inexpensive, compact and effective item in your cold weather emergency kit. The blanket is waterproof and significantly reduces heat loss.
    Once ashore, the quickest way to restore the body’s core temperature is a warm (not hot) bath or shower. Avoid exposure to any form of extreme heat. The skin becomes very insensitive during episodes of hypothermia, and burn injuries are much more easily incurred than they would be otherwise.
    Cold-weather fishing on the Chesapeake is often fantastic, even better than in more temperate periods. Go prepared for good experiences and great stories. Ignore the accompanying danger at your own peril.

Earth’s shadow blots out this week’s full moon

With sunrise now after 7am, perhaps you’ve seen an exceptionally bright light in the south before dawn? Looking up, did you see the constellation Orion? That’s Sirius, the brightest star in the heavens, known as the Dog Star for its place amid Canis Major. Sirius rises around 2am in the east-southeast. Close to the horizon, it pulses a dazzling rainbow of colors, its light refracted by earth’s atmosphere like that from a prism. Closer to daybreak, when Sirius is high in the south, its light cuts through less of our atmosphere and appears a brilliant, cold white. As if Sirius didn’t stand out from its brightness alone, the three belt stars of Orion point straight down to the Dog Star.
    Perhaps, though, you’re looking due east in the hour before sunrise. In that case you’re seeing Jupiter, which outshines even Sirius. The giant planet rises around 3am, and by 6am it is high in the east. Below Jupiter is the constellation Leo with its upper body looking like an inversed question mark with Regulus at the bottom.
    You’ll want to get up before dawn Wednesday to catch the total lunar eclipse of the full, Hunter’s Moon. An eclipse of the moon only occurs during full moon, when it is aligned just so with the earth and sun, which casts earth’s shadow over the lunar surface. The process begins after 4am as the moon grows darker under the outer, penumbral, shadow. A little after 5am, the full, umbral, shadow begins to take a growing bite from the moon’s left edge until it is completely over-shadowed by 6:30. Mid-eclipse is at 6:54, after which point the rising sun breaks the spell.
    At the other side of darkness, Mars and Saturn appear at sunset. Saturn is fast on the heels of the sun, low in the southwest at dusk. Night by night the ringed planet is sinking lower and inching closer to the sun until it disappears around month’s end. Mars trails Saturn by roughly 20 degrees. Normally its red hue makes it easy to spot, but you may think you’re seeing double, as Mars is less than five degrees above another red light, Antares, the heart of Scorpius, whose name means rival of Mars. Over the coming weeks Mars creeps higher while the scorpion sets from view for winter.