|Christmas Is for the Birds and Birders
Did you get in your Christmas Bird Count this season?
Since the turn of the last century - the 20th, that is - such counts have been a holiday tradition. That's counts, not hunts, with three letters making a big difference.
Back in 1900, Christmas was a time for shooting all kinds of birds, not just game birds, and bird populations plummeted. The sporting activity of field birding, which meant using binoculars to identify birds not in the hand, was brand new.
On December 25, 1900, 27 counters tallied 18,500 birds from 90 species. In 101 years, the alternative counts organized by the National Audubon Society have spread throughout the Western Hemisphere and Pacific Islands. From mid-December 2000 until January 5, 2001, a birder as swift and resolute as Santa could join in over 1,800 counts.
In Chesapeake Country, one among a handful of counts set out at the convergence of Anne Arundel, Calvert and Prince George's counties during the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 17. Forty-three volunteers deployed within the 30-mile-diameter count-circle centered on the Jug Bay area of the Patuxent River. Counters worked along roadways, waterfront, fields and woodlands to record, to the best of their considerable abilities, the number of species as well as the number of individual birds.
Some of the counters began their day before dawn in heavy rain and lightning, listening for owls. Despite their valiant efforts, a total of just three owls were counted: two barn owls and one unidentified large owl species.
The day dawned warm, with its high temperature of 62 degrees recorded at 7am. Sometime after 8am, after rain had passed through, the counters were out in force. By dusk, temperatures had dropped to near freezing. Throughout the day, strong winds seemed to keep many birds hunkered down and difficult to count.
In the Jug Bay 101st tally, nothing stands out as particularly rare or unusual. There were sightings of common yellowthroat and yellow-breasted chat, both neo-tropical species that migrate far to the south in the fall. But it is not unusual to find a few stragglers in coastal areas. Nor were there there unusually high numbers for any species.
Worth noting is what wasn't counted: bob white quail were, again, notable for their absence. Maryland has steadily lost these and other ground-nesting species such as whippoorwill. Mark Garland, senior naturalist with the Audubon Naturalist Society, told me a theory that might explain their plight: A growing number of dogs and cats roaming over a confined and shrinking area of suitable habitat could be taking a heavy toll on vulnerable ground-nesters.
Jug Bay's total species count was 105 with 49,954 individual birds. The highest counts were for Canada goose with 12,804 followed by greater scaup at 6,157 and common grackle with 4,754. A count of one was recorded for 10 species: common loon, northern shoveler, snow goose, Coopers hawk, red-breasted nuthatch, common yellowthroat and yellow-breasted chat.
Beyond Jug Bay, over 50,000 counters hope to surpass the 100th count record of 78,840,844 birds encompassing 680 species. The results of all that effort are compiled into the longest running database in ornithology, representing close to one hundred years of unbroken data on trends of early-winter bird populations across the Americas. While contributing to science, field birders have created a new sporting society.
The Second Coming
In a year where the candidate who got the most votes lost the election, the plebiscite still carries some clout. Thus we concluded after comparing the millennial blow-outs of New Year's Eve 1999-2000 with the homey celebrations of 2000-2001. No matter what science said, the people said the millennium came last year.
So when you assess the celebrations of 2001, you give points for style - not splash.
In Annapolis, First Night won honors from Donna Lee, who called it "by far the best, in venues better equipped to hold people and in acts themselves." Lee in from Great Falls, Va., with husband Roger Heagy measured the Annapolis occasion against First Nights in Arlington, Virginia, and in Connecticut.
But for millennial cleverness, the Annapolis cake-taker was ACME Bar and Grill, which served its three-course New Year's Eve dinner for $20.01.
Down south, Shady Side showed the Naval Observatory in Washington there's more than one ball to drop on New Year's Eve. Shady Siders enjoyed their drop at Brick House, the popular restaurant.
Co-owner Pete Litchfield hit on the idea a year ago, and the dozens of local residents who turned out in the parking lot proved that he'd hit on a boffo idea.
"It wasn't a matter of needing more business; we've got all can handle on New Year's Eve. We wanted something for people to do. And it turned out like a big tail-gate party," he said.
What fell from the Chesapeake Bay sky this year was a three-foot-wide wire mesh ball, illuminated with 1,200 lights and 300-watt center star that cast fantastic shadows as it swayed from above. "Above" came in the form of a truck-mounted cherry picker courtesy of Smith Building Supply, of Shady Side since 1935. As Smith's motto - nicely inscribed on the International truck - says, "Help Is Just Around the Corner."
Sure enough, when the ball descended from the sky, people cheered both the changing calendar and the company of neighbors on a crisp winter night. In the spirit of Chesapeake Bay conservation, Litchfield intends to recycle his contraption - minus the lights - until it's time for the 2002 celebration.
"I'll just use it as a crab pot," he quipped.
Annapolis, of course, was not to be outdone by its country cousin. Instead of a millennial ball on City Dock, a neon blue crab descended into a neon pot of boiling water, turning bright neon red. Then came the fireworks.
-Bay Weekly staff
So Long Free Parking
Free parking kept silver jingling in the pockets of Annapolitans and capital visitors from Thanksgiving Day through the new year. Even so, the 40 days of free parking did not empty the city's treasure chest this - or any - year.
Since the mid-80s, the city mayor, then Dennis M. Callahan, and the city council have given the city of Annapolis free parking, sustaining downtown merchant success during the holiday season. "It is a 'gift' to the merchants and the residents of Annapolis," says city spokesman Tom Roskelly.
Free parking blanketed the bustling village with a sense of ease - as long as drivers honored the everyday parking time limits, which range from 15 and 30 minutes to two hours downtown and up to nine hours along King George Street.
Time was flying - but still enforced. A bold, short, white chalk-mark on a tire, or sometimes on the road, is a sure sign that the city's parking enforcement officers are on the job.
On New Year's Eve, parkers could let time slip right by them. City garages charged a flat fee of $5 to avoid the problems of last year, when parkers were stalled for hours - and the mayor roused from his bed - by attendants struggling to calculate hourly fees.
On New Year's Day, parkers were eased out of the holiday mood with free but timed meter parking. Then, on January 2, 2001 the white bags that suffocated the parking meters of their silver oxygen came off.
Over 40 days of free parking have saved the people - and cost the city - about $72,000. The annual decrease is figured into the city's budget.
The on-street parking money, which does not include profits from parking garages, is split three ways. First, the meter maids and men are paid. Second, the city pays Com Plus, the company that provides not only the equipment with which tickets are printed but also the service of announcing and collecting fines. The third cut of money supports the cost of low-cost residential parking.
"Parking meters anywhere are not designed to produce revenue, but rather turn over available parking spaces," says Roskelly. Still $648,000 - the city's annual parking revenue - is a lot of pocket silver.
Now that the holidays are past, there's no more free parking. Feed your meter and move your car or pay the fine. That's $15 - if you pay, and postmark your payment, the day you get your ticket. Wait, and parking in Annapolis will cost you $25.
-Jennifer A. Dawicki
Deep Freeze: New Year's Ice Threatens
With two boats on the Bay, Capt. Jim Brincefield watches the weather about as closely as the professional forecasters. In the records he keeps, Chesapeake Bay tributaries haven't frozen this early since 1972.
"That was the year people were driving Volkswagens across the Bay," said Brincefield.
No one is planning automobile trips on the Chesapeake any time soon, especially with a warming trend predicted. But the December freeze that deepened this week has closed ports on both sides of the Bay while threatening boats, docks and any humans with the temerity to venture beyond the slick shoreline.
Brincefield hasn't been able to get either his workboat out of the West River or his fishing boat out of St. Mary's County since Dec. 21. Sitting at home in Deale, at least he doesn't have to worry about colliding with ice on the open water.
Without bubblers or other precautions, the unremitting cold can freeze the water in the bilge and destroy engines not properly winterized. The ice can damage hulls. Wooden boats can be most vulnerable.
"When a wooden boat is sitting still and ice freezes to the hull, it can pull out the caulking so the boat sinks," says Annapolis City Dock Harbormaster Ulric Dahlgren. That might have been one of the forces that sank a wooden boat in Parrish Creek over the holidays.
That creek, says Ginger Griffith of Back Yard Boats in Shady Side, "is freezing right back up as soon as a boat breaks through. Bob Evans is trying to keep Parrish Creek open by running in and out, and other working watermen are going out fishing and breaking ice."
However, when boats are underway, even thin ice can scrape, pierce and even sink a boat, especially if its hull is wood.
"Look at the Titanic," Brincefield says. "And if you go overboard in this water, you don't have long."
For just how long, Harbormaster Dahlgren advises you consider the Rule of 50s. "A person 50 years old has a 50 percent chance of surviving a 50-yard swim in 50-degree water," he says. "The water's in the 30s now. When people fall into cold water, swimming ability doesn't matter. The cold causes involuntary exhalation, and when you go under a breathing spasm is likely to take you straight to the bottom. You drown."
Unless somebody's there to pull you up instantly. As was the good fortune of a slipholder at Fishing Creek Marina in Chesapeake Beach. "He made a common mistake," explains marina owner Pam Sisson. "He panicked when he saw ice building up around his boat. He went to break it up himself and fell in. His boat was perfectly safe, but he wasn't. And the jagged edges of broken ice can do more damage to a winterized boat than solid ice."
Jim Reinoehl, general manager of Gates Marina in Deale, also knows what ice can do, having seen it crush wood and pull pilings right out of the mud.
Expensive docks are in jeopardy when ice freezes hard around the piling. Then, when the tide comes in under the ice, it pushes from underneath, threatening to lift the pilings and damage the wood of the docks. Sisson says Fishing Creek lost a couple of pilings last year.
Left to itself, ice in coves and still water has frozen as deep as six inches. Tom Wilhelm, general manager of Herrington Harbour marinas in Tracey's Landing and Rose Haven, measures ice "anywhere from two to six inches thick." The difference, he says, "is because we've been breaking ice on a daily basis to keep channels clear, using our own boats and waterman Richard Smith over from Shady Side."
The Coast Guard already has deployed a 65-foot steel-hull cutter, the Chock 65 from Portsmouth to break ice in rivers and shallows of the Wicomico River, Tangier Sound and around Smith Island.
"Our number one priority is search and rescue, but we assist tugs and barges with heating oil and mail vessels as we can," says Coast Guard Lt. Chuck Roscam, who's managing ice in the Bay. The Coast Guard has not been called to search and rescue, but other boats are repairing aids to navigation damaged by the ice.
-BL and SOM
In Prince George's County, the U.S. Department of Transportation has proposed a $674,000 fine against PEPCO for a raft of "serious" violations surrounding the oil spill that damaged the Patuxent River and its wildlife last spring. One of the violations was telling people that just 2,000 gallons spilled when, in fact, it was about 125,000 gallons
In Washington, the National Park Service is being forced to reveal the damage from jet skis in the 21 national parks where they are still permitted, according to a court settlement announced last week. The government already has banned jet skis from 66 parks because of their environmental destruction
In Britain, folks are howling over a commercial featuring a fisherman fighting a bear karate-style for a salmon. (The bear isn't real.) The ad, which is among the most popular in the world right now, is designed to show what fishermen go through to bring salmon to people's tables. See it at adcritic.com
In Massachusetts, a state trooper is suing a bird-owner after an unusual injury. The cop, Roger Fleury, alleges that he was kicked by an escaped emu while trying to corral the flightless bird. Fleury suffered a shoulder injury but the bird fared worse; it died
Our Creature Feature comes from San Francisco, where zookeepers spent a nervous Christmas after two precious koala bears were snatched from the zoo. Cuddly koalas, you may or may not know, eat nothing but eucalyptus leaves. Understandably, folks were worried about their fates.
The story has a happy ending. The koala caper was solved by an anonymous tip, and the koalas were returned before the new year, stressed and skinnier, but alive. Two arrested teens confessed that they intended to give the koalas to their girlfriends but the girls said no, you fools. Rumor has it that the youthful bear-nappers will be sentenced to a cage with a diet of eucalyptus leaves.
Forecast for a New Century
by Pat Piper
Once upon a time, there was a small village on the water. It was home to people who made their living catching fish and crabs and oysters. Others worked the fertile soil of their farms to produce corn. And others drove to a big city an hour away to make a living.
As the economy grew and roads improved, more people moved to the village. Each talked about how they enjoyed the rural setting, how the pace was slower and how much they looked forward to down time where they could look at fields and water instead of concrete.
As the people came, so did development. More homes were built in the woods by the water. More restaurants and gas stations appeared along the road into the village. In the summer, more roadside stands with fresh fruits and vegetables sprang up. All this was because the people who had come from the big city nearby wanted convenience. They didn't like to waste time on their days off or hours after work driving 20 miles to buy food.
Soon, the character and the soul of the village by the water started to change. Everyone talked about there being less time in a day when, in fact, the number of hours in a day hadn't changed since the village began more than a century earlier.
Big stores came to the village. Each one spoke of "the marketplace" and the need for their services and products. And yes, the word "convenience" started to be used more and more by the many people wanting to welcome the big stores. In each case, the professional planners showed up with fancy maps and charts and designs to make their case for "bigger" and "larger" and, of course, "convenient." Some of the people said no. Some of the stores were scaled down out of concern they were just "too big." But after months, and sometimes years, of debate they were built. Concrete replaced soil.
One day, a man was driving through the village by the water on his way to the big city. He noticed more land being cleared where once there had been big, beautiful pine trees. He thought about the convenience that would result and the progress it symbolized. And he said "no."
The next day he moved out of the village to a place far away with lots of trees and one-lane roads and very few stores. Soon, others drove into that town and remarked to each other how nice it was to see more grass than concrete and how comfortable it felt. And so a gas station was built and then a grocery store and