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A recent solar flare could present Northern Lights to Southerners

A powerful solar flare on January 7 launched a barrage of plasm our way, which has the chance of producing auroras at much lower latitudes than usual. Scientists expect the activity to begin before dawn Thursday, January 9, which is too late to help given this issue’s release that day. But solar astronomers don’t rule out more blasts to come, as this solar flare, technically called a coronal mass ejection, was caused by an eruption from a massive and very active sunspot, AR1944, which is facing earth head-on. The sunspot, “as wide as seven earths,” NASA reported, is “one of the largest sunspots seen in the last 10 years.”
    Called aurora borealis when seen north of the equator and corona borealis to the south, these displays are the result of powerful bursts of radiation from the sun. Earth’s atmosphere blocks that harmful radiation, or these would be lethal events, but as the charged particles collide with earth’s own magnetically charged atmosphere, they produce a vivid and eerie light show. While these aurora are harmless to life, they can wreak havoc on our satellites, disrupting GPS, cellular reception and radio and television transmissions. The flare has already forced private space company Orbital Sciences to delay the launch of an unmanned cargo craft to the International Space Station.
    Any chance to see the so-called Northern Lights as far south as the Chesapeake is well worth keeping an eye on the sky over the next few nights.
    The moon is also busy this week. It visits over the weekend, to the left of the moon Friday night, look for the Pleiades star cluster. At first glance the Pleiades appear as a fuzzy patch of light in the constellation Taurus. But closer examination on a clear night reveals six stars shaped like a miniature dipper.
    Saturday the Pleiades are above the moon, while below the moon is Aldebaran, the red eye of the bull, and the Hyades star cluster.
    On Tuesday, the near-full moon is five degrees south of Jupiter. Tuesday, January 7, marked the anniversary of Galileo Galilei’s 1610 discovery of Jupiter’s largest three moons,  Io, Europa and Ganymede (he discovered Callisto a few days later). Today, a good pair of binoculars will reveal more of mighty Jove’s orbiting satellite’s than the great astronomer’s first telescope.
    Wednesday the 15th marks January’s full Wolf Moon, which also reaches apogee, its farthest point in orbit from earth, making this full moon the smallest of the year.
    Venus reaches inferior conjunction, Saturday, passing between the earth and sun, leaving our morning skies only to reappear as the Evening Star thereafter. Unlike the transit of Venus in 2012, this time Venus will pass five degrees north of the sun — still far too close to watch without a solar filter. Viewed with telescope or binoculars and the proper eye protection, our sister planet appears as a wide but razor-thin crescent.

That’s the closest you can get to fishing when winter howls

The 10-day weather forecast calls for wind and consistently low temperatures, occasionally a bit of rain and clouds. Not the kind of outlook that lifts your spirits, unless you’re a waterfowler. I hadn’t joined a hunt club this season, so that didn’t include me.
    Worse yet, I had chores on my conscience. I had cleaned most of my fishing tackle late in November — only to need it again for early December’s last-minute rockfish bite. So half of my tackle was fouled, awaiting another cleaning. I had also neglected to put on my reel covers for the winter, so my collection of rigs has been accumulating light dust flavored with errant dog and cat hair.
    Still, the next best thing to fishing is fooling with fishing tackle. So this week I took a deep breath and got to business. The dust and hair I conquered with a medium-width, soft-bristle nylon paintbrush that I keep handy for the PC keyboard.
    Next I clipped off leftover terminal rigs, cleaning the outfits over a large towel I could shake outside. The tackle with fish slime and salt residue took longer to rectify. Then I hit everything with a light coat of silicone, sat back and took stock of the situation.
    It had been a long time since I had done any internal maintenance: drag washer cleaning and regreasing; bearing lubrication; level wind and casting brake attention. All these ensure that the next season starts out trouble-free. Early fishing is no time for a long series of problem-solving interruptions.
    I had a bit of work ahead of me. That’s because of my fondness for multiple rigs: bait-casting setups for chumming; others, slightly different, for live-lining; yet others for light-plug casting; stiffer sticks for heavier plugs and jigging; and light spin outfits for perch.
    I had done little plug casting the past season, so I decided those outfits could wait. But all of the bait rigs and perch rods had seen extensive use.
    My preferred bait-casting reels, Abu Garcia Ambassaduer 5600s, have to be taken apart before anything can be done to them. My outfits are modified with Abu Soft Grip Power Handles and Carbontex drag washers. Everything else is stock. A YouTube video details disassembly and service: www.youtube.com/
watch?v=7k9Hb75gXJg.
    Another video that covers a Shimano spin reel is analogous to just about all fixed spool reels: www.youtube.com/
watch?v=kflr4kraG50.
    Shimano, Okuma, Penn and other manufacturers all have similar website support for specific reel models.
    It looks like classic winter is descending upon us. Don’t squander your cabin-bound hours with TV or video games. Maintain your tackle and dream of next season.

But learn their tastes, and they’ll give you flowers

Are your African violets blooming?    
    If not, read on to learn why and what you can do to bring out the flowers.
    African violets’ long-standing popularity grows from lush foliage and their habit of winter flowering. The plants are challenging, but not more than many in-home gardeners can manage. Even propagation is possible with a little knowledge on your part.
    African violets are shade-loving plants whose leaves scorch under the direct rays of the sun. Grow yours in places where they receive only diffused light. Or try growing lights.
    When you re-pot, use only a rich organic rooting medium that has been sterilized. You’ll find the right mix at garden supply stores, or you can sterilize your own in the microwave. Heat a gallon of moist rooting medium for 10 to 12 minutes on high.
    African violet varieties are vast because these popular plants have been hybridized extensively. Cultivars range from miniatures to larger than normal, with varying types of petals, flower colors and velvety foliage.
    Not all the hybridizing has produced good qualities. In breeding, some desirable characteristics such as disease resistance, wet-soil tolerance and plant vigor have been compromised. Many of the new cultivars require special care. Some want to be grown in sterile rooting media. Others demand extreme care in watering, refusing to tolerate over-watering or wet foliage. Still others can’t abide fertilizer accumulation along the edges of their pot. Even winter flowering has been lost in some cultivars.
    African violets are picky about temperature. If they don’t like the temperature where they live, they won’t flower.
    Many of the new cultivars will flower consistently only when temperatures remain constant. Older cultivars flowered best where temperatures were warm during the day and cool at night. The windowsill was often the best place for growing African violets. Today’s African violets are best grown in the middle of the room where temperatures remain more constant.
    It’s still true that you should avoid wetting the foliage when watering the pots. If you typically water from the bottom up, change over once a month and water from the top down to prevent fertilizer salts from accumulating along the top edge of the pots. Accumulated fertilizer salts will burn the petiols, or stalks, of the lower leaves in contact with the edge of the pot. Fertilizer salts appear as tiny gray-green granules clinging to the inside edge of the pot starting from the surface of the rooting medium. If you’ve got them, scrape them off.
    Have I answered all your questions about raising African violets? If not, write and ask and I’ll reply.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. All questions will appear in Bay Weekly. Please include your name and address.

Our closest approach to the sun does make for the shortest season

Twilight Thursday and Friday evening reveals the new crescent moon low in the southwest with Venus blazing a few degrees away tight against the horizon. Venus sinks lower in the early evening sky over the next week, finally disappearing between the sun and earth on January 11. Then, after a few days absence, it reappears in pre-dawn skies, where it will blaze as the Morning Star until autumn.
    Moonless skies provide a dark backdrop for this year’s Quadrantid meteor shower, which is at its best in the wee hours before dawn Friday and Saturday. Best viewing will be from a dark location after midnight. Meteors will radiate from the constellation Boötes, but can appear anywhere in the sky. The Quadrantids can produce from 50 to 100 meteors an hour, but timing — or more aptly, luck — is essential, as this shower peaks within just a few hours, and then it’s over.
    You shouldn’t have any trouble spotting Jupiter, which reaches opposition Sunday, when it will shine in our night skies from sunset until sunrise, far brighter than any star. At opposition, the gaseous giant is its closest to earth and farthest from the sun, with earth right between the two.
    Mars rises around midnight and is high in the south as daybreak approaches. Far below the red planet is Saturn, actually a little brighter but harder to see so tight against the horizon.
    Saturday, earth reaches its closest point to the sun for the year — called perihelion. At that point the sun is roughly 3 million miles closer to the sun than it is at aphelion in July. While 3 million miles may seem like a lot, the distance has little correlation with the change of seasons, which are a result of earth’s 231⁄2-degree tilted axis. It does, however, affect the length of the seasons, since when the earth is nearest the sun it is also traveling its fastest — more than three percent faster than at aphelion. As a result, the seasons come and go quicker this time of year, with the time between December’s solstice and March’s equinox almost five days shorter than from June’s solstice until September’s equinox. As a result, winter is the shortest season for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere.
    Saturday, two weeks after solstice, is the latest sunrise of the year. Sunrise comes a few seconds earlier than the day before, and while the change will be subtle at first, by the end of the month the sun will rise more than 10 minutes earlier than it does now.

Get out and dig to be ready for spring

If you did a good job of building your compost pile last fall, now is a good time to stimulate more microbial activity.
    Just before Christmas, temperatures in my compost pile dropped below 100 degrees from a high of 130 degrees measured just three weeks earlier. This falling temperature is due partially to a drop in surrounding ambient air and partially to a lower rate of microbial activity.
    Microbial activity in composting can fall because of low levels of oxygen, excessive dryness, less available carbon or fewer sources of nitrogen. For most home composting projects, low levels of oxygen are unlikely unless your compost pile is taller and wider than 12 feet. Exchange of gasses is likely to be fine as leaves are bulky and do not pack easily. Thus, compost cooling is most likely due to a sudden drop in ambient air or dryness.
    To check for moisture, thrust your hand into the compost and squeeze firmly. If the composting waste feels wet like a sponge, there is adequate moisture. If the compost feels on the dry side, drag out the hose and wet the pile down with a heavy stream of water. After the compost appears adequately wet, use either a grub-hoe or digging spade, going as deep into the pile as possible while adding more water. The excess water will drain deeper into the composting mass.
    If possible, empty the composting bin and wet the waste before re-filling the bin. Digging into the composting materials will grind the larger particles into smaller pieces, stimulating greater microbial activity. Ground leaves compost faster than whole leaves.
    Within a week after you’ve reformed the pile, temperatures within it should increase. However, if your compost pile is less than three feet by three by three, it is not likely to give you much temperature rise due to a lack of mass.

Crappie are at the head of the class, followed by yellow perch

The winter solstice, officially the first day of winter and the shortest day of the year, is already two weeks behind us. This annual planetary event is in another way the beginning of the end of winter. From here on out, daylight hours are growing longer and springtime ever closer.
    That also means the blooming of the new fishing season since the fish, their instincts triggered by this change in the amount of sunlight, begin moving out of their deep water holes to migrate toward shallow water to spawn.
    The first species to react to the sunlight change is crappie, also called specs or calico bass. Crappie are schooling and moving up the tribs into fresher water to reproduce. It’s a bank fishing expedition you’ll need to mount to catch them, with Eastern Shore tributaries being the destination for most everyone chasing these tasty critters.
    However, Patuxent River anglers favoring freshwater impoundments (with their insider info of springtime honey holes) should also begin harvesting slab crappie within days if they haven’t already.
    In the very near future, yellow perch spawning will begin.
    The young males of all fish species are first to show up in the shallows, where they remain the whole of the spawn. The slab crappie and lunker perch generally come later and in surges. There is no way of predicting when. You just have to keep trying.
    Recently, Ed Robinson (a.k.a. The Scout), tortured me with an account of a 100-plus fish day on Dorchester County’s Transquaking River. Though there weren’t a lot of keepers in that crappie bonanza, it is a strong indicator that the new season is exploding.
    Joining in on this first of season fishing is not a difficult task. Arm yourself with a light to medium spin outfit, a few bobbers and some small shad darts in various colors plus a few bottom rigs setup with No. 4 hooks and one-ounce sinkers. Baits can be as exotic as wax worms or as mundane as red wrigglers, minnows and grass shrimp. Rubber boots and warm clothing are an absolute necessity.
    Anglers of all experience levels can choose their destination from the DNR website: www.dnr.state.md.us/fisheries/fishingreport/ypercheast.html for the Eastern Shore; or www.dnr.state.md.us/fisheries/fishingreport/yperchwest.html for the Western side.
    Early season fisheries are not limited to these two fish. Soon after the yellows, white perch will begin to stir and move up into these same areas. Then the hickory shad and the herring. The latter two species are protected from harvest, but as they suffer little mortality from being hooked this time of year, they are available for catch and release.
    One other aspect of the sport of early season fishing is also critical to continued success. When the commercial fyke nets and fish traps are set by watermen each spring, they will shut down an upper tributary’s recreational fishery faster than an acid spill. If a promising start suddenly dies, head downstream to get below the nets.
    Over all of these first few months, chain pickerel will continue to prowl the same waters. An excellent game fish, they follow the schools of spawning crappie and perch and feed off them, gaining fat and preparing, eventually, for their own reproductive run in March and April. Chain pickerel are a firm, white-fleshed fish and, though they are filled with fine bones, if they are filleted correctly they produce an excellent meal.

Wild Orchid chef takes over Sam’s kitchen

It’s a new year. With the flip of a calendar comes a chance to renew, refresh and remodel.
    In Annapolis, the new year offers opportunity for two local restaurateurs to help each other.
    Andrew Parks, owner of Sam’s on the Waterfront, has announced his new executive chef, Jim Wilder. Chef Wilder recently closed his Westgate Circle restaurant Wild Orchid after a difficult three-year tenure.
    Timing is everything, so hopes Parks, who has struggled to consistently employ an executive chef in the eight years he has owned the waterfront restaurant built in 1986 by his grandfather, the original Sam.
    Each man endeavors to bring the best of his farm-to-table vision in this new marriage of culinary talents. Each restaurant has — or has had — the green restaurant certification.
    At Sam’s, Parks takes the front-of-house role with Wilder running the kitchen.
    In the past, Wilder has worked both ends of the operation, with 13 years at the helm of his highly regarded Eastport Wild Orchid his pinnacle, to the head-scratching move to the behemoth at the Severn Bank Building — a move that would be his undoing.
    Few understood Wilder’s decision to sell the warm and comfortable 40-seat Eastport café in 2010 and move to the 250-seat former Greystone Grill on the other side of town.
    That decision “was not based on sound business models. I had to keep my mind occupied,” Wilder said, after the untimely death of his and wife Karen’s son, Andrew Wall, from brain cancer in 2009. “It was the bottom. And I deal with depression by keeping busy. Depression drove me.”
    Building a dream kitchen provided a needed distraction from grief. It also afforded access and opportunity to expand Wilder’s Company’s Coming catering business, along with a large floor plan that offered him ideal accessibility for his wheelchair.
    The dream was not meant to be. The restaurant closed in July 2013.
    Parks has his own challenges keeping Sam’s profitable and relevant. Hidden within the gated Chesapeake Harbour Marina community, the restaurant is difficult to find. Warm weather brings boaters out and swells the population of Chesapeake Harbour, where many residents are summer only. Still, Parks estimates that 80 percent of his business comes from outside the community. Getting diners in the door is an ongoing pursuit. Parks hopes hiring a well-known chef will do the trick.
    Chef Wilder brings his most popular dishes to the menu. Butternut squash soup with crab, scallops Napoleon and pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon join Sam’s favorites: lobster mac ’n’ cheese, rockfish and Kobe burgers (half-price on Tuesday).
    The transition has been subtle thus far, though Parks is enthusiastic about a new winter menu and many collaborative surprises to come.

Got a tasty tip for a future’s Dish? Email Lisa Knoll at thedish@bayweekly.com.

Some days, everything’s wrong but the fish

It was cold on the Bay, colder than we wanted to endure. But it had been a long time since either of us had caught a rockfish. So there we were in mid-morning in my 17-foot skiff off the mouth of the Severn in about 35 feet of water with temperatures barely above freezing.
    At least the winds were mild, as were the seas. But the skies were stalled in a dark overcast. I could feel the fingers of cold, damp air trying to creep under my expedition-weight fleece unders. Shivering, I tightened my foul-weather coat.
    As a bit of current is essential for the chumming expedition we had in mind, we had timed our arrival to coincide with the beginnings of a falling tide. Moving water would carry our chum bits out and establish a long, broad scent path for cruising stripers to follow right back to the tasty fresh menhaden baits at the end of our lines.
    The boat swung gently at anchor. I was pleased that the first part of our plan was unfolding as intended. But when I finally looked up from preparing my tackle, I saw that instead of facing south, our stern was pointed toward the distant Bay Bridge. The flood tide was not starting to fall. It was still coming in.
    We quickly baited up, casting out four lines as I dropped the chum bag over the stern to capitalize on the last few minutes of incoming current. We weren’t so lucky. In minutes, our lines sagged as water movement stopped. Off our transom, we watched the chum dropping straight to the bottom.
    It would be an hour or more before the outgoing current would make up. Until then, nothing would happen; rockfish are loath to feed in still water. The prospect of doing nothing but shivering was not inspiring.

Catching a Fluke or Three
    We’d marked a few pods of fish in the area where we’d anchored, and I noticed in the distance some big boats grouped up in deeper waters.
    “Maybe we should pull the anchor and do a little more reconnaissance while the tide is slack,” I said. “It looks like those guys over there may have found something.”
    “Okay,” my partner said, “but you’ll have to wait till I get this fish in.”
    I turned to confirm his jest only to see his rod bent in a hard arc, the drag humming as line poured out.
    “I can’t believe you hung a fish in this mess,” I said, looking for the net.
    When we finally got the rockfish on board it was winter fat, shiny and big enough that there was no need to measure it.
    “Nothing wrong with a keeper in the first five minutes on a slack tide,” I said.
    But I knew it was a fluke. That’s when one of my outfits bent over in its holder and line went peeling off the reel.
    That fish was even bigger than the first, about 26 inches and equally wintertime fat. Soon after, my friend hooked up another. It was a good looking keeper about the same size as his first fish, but we threw it back, deciding that the way things were looking we could afford to raise our standards. We agreed on nothing less than 24 inches.
    “I can’t believe we’re catching these fish in dead water,” I repeated. When I glanced at our electronic finder, the reason became clear. The screen was lit up. Crimson arcs and blobs steadily moved across the four-color LCD. We were sitting in the middle of a school.
    Our stern had barely swung south with the ebb by the time we had managed the last of our four brawny keepers into the ice chest.

A fresh-cut Douglas fir is the safest tree you can buy

Believe me when I say that not all Christmas trees are created equal. I know because I was assigned to set fires under the five most popular Christmas species.
    In 1995, I was asked by the Maryland Christmas Tree Association and the State Fire Marshall’s office to research the most fire-resistant species. I tested white pine, Scots pine, blue spruce and both Douglas and Frazier firs. The State Fire Marshall set the rules. I rolled a single sheet of newspaper into a ball about 10 inches in diameter. I placed the ball against the lowest branches of the tree, then set it afire.

Ancient Ailing Oaks

Q    I live in the St. Margaret’s area near the Bay Bridge. In my neighborhood, many, if not most, of the old oak trees are dead or dying. These are original trees in an area that was never farmed; I’m sure many of them are well over 100 years old. It is so distressing since they are beautiful and I love them and because it costs $2,000 to $3,000 to have them cut down. Do you know why they are dying? Is there anything I can do to save them? I think they are red oaks, though my tree identification skills are poor.
    Thanks so much for your help. I read your column every week and thoroughly enjoy it.
    –Linda Williams, Annapolis

A    There is no way that I can determine the cause of death without seeing the conditions in which they are growing. I have cherry bark oak trees in my yard that are over 150 years old. I keep them healthy by vertical mulching every four to five years. When I moved here 22 years ago, they were in a severe state of decline, but after being vertically mulched, they revived. I suggest that you contact Mark Emmel at 301-345-2981. Mark is a good arborist and is familiar with vertical mulching.
Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. All questions will appear in Bay Weekly. Please include your name and address.

    Fresh-cut trees of each species were delivered to me at Upakrik Farm and stored — some with, others without water — at 70 degrees with lights on for eight hours. Trees were held in storage for three and six weeks prior to testing.
    We set the fires in the Fire/EMS Training Academy’s burn building at Cheltenham, with several Christmas tree growers watching. Each variant of the experiment was replicated three times and videotaped for evaluation by fire marshals from three counties and from the state office.
    White pines generated lots of smoke regardless of the amount of time in storage. They were immediately rejected by the fire marshals.
    Frazier firs were also rejected. Stored without water, they burned readily after three weeks of storage. After six weeks, they exploded into fire.
    Douglas fir was approved as the most fire-safe tree because even after six weeks of storage without water, it did not ignite. Scots pine and blue spruce were also approved.
    We repeated the experiment in 1996 with exactly the same results.
    As a Christmas tree grower, I attribute the Douglas fir’s fire-safe performance to its low resin content. My knives and pruners remain clean even after days of shearing. This is not true with the other species tested.
    As a result of this study, the State Fire Marshal established COMAR 12.03.04, allowing only Douglas fir, Scots pine and blue spruce in public buildings. Each tree must be accompanied with a tag identifying the farm where it was grown, date of harvest and species. Before the tree is moved indoors, two inches must be cut from the base. Tree stands must hold a minimum of two gallons of water. The tree must stay indoors no longer than four weeks.
    To keep your house fire-safe this Christmas season, follow these recommendations.

The interloper visits Spica and Mercury

Mercury is putting on its best pre-dawn show of 2013, more than doubling in brightness this week, from +1 magnitude to –0.5 (each order of magnitude is exponential, so an increase from +1 to 0 is a doubling). Monday marks the innermost planet’s greatest elongation — its farthest point away from the sun as seen from earth and its highest point above the horizon. Mercury rises a little before 6am and climbs nearly 15 degrees above the southeast horizon before the sun rises more than an hour later. Ten degrees above Mercury is blue-white Spica, but even this first-magnitude star pales compared to Mercury this week.
    First discovered last September, Comet ISON is heading into the inner solar system for the first time, coming within 700,000 miles of the sun November 27. If the comet survives that close encounter, it could live up to the comet of the century billing. If not, the next two weeks are your best chance to spot this long-distance traveler.
    With binoculars or a small telescope, look for ISON one degree to the west of Spica Sunday before dawn and less than one-half degree to the east of the star the next morning. By next Thursday and Friday, ISON will be within 10 degrees of Mercury — well within your binoculars’ field of view. Perhaps by then it will be bright enough to see with the unaided eye.
    Sunday marks the full moon, the Beaver Moon and the Frost Moon according to lore. The full moon floats just six degrees below the miniature dipper-shape of the Pleiades star cluster, while Monday night it is even closer to Aldebaran, the red eye of Taurus the bull.
    The full moon’s glow washes out all but the brightest meteors in this year’s Leonid shower, which peaks between the 16th and 18th. Still, the Leonids are active through the month, so patience or luck will likely reward you with a few of these shooting stars.