Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Disappearing Marsh, Part I

Two Male Bald Eagles vye for a perch in an icy downpour, December 2008
If you're a regular reader here at the ol' RMB, you know that we winter a few birds here in the Mid-Atlantic. Now, they may not show up until 2 weeks after the end of duck season, but they do show up, in waves, throughout the winter. And every year, suddenly, almost all of them - shorebirds and waterfowl alike - all pick up and head north within a few days of each other. One of the most significant bird habitats in the Mid-Atlantic is the Blackwater Complex. A recognized "wetland of international importance," Blackwater - the Federal property alone, comprises over 27,000 acres....almost all of it underwater at high tide.



The Delmarva Peninsula winters a few geese and black ducks....

Blackwater has a lot of challenges. Beyond the usual spectres of sea level rise, invasive species, and encroachment by humans, Blackwater appears to be eating itself alive. Literally. Two factors, the introduction of the nutria, and the decomposition of the peat and muck itself, are causing wetland conversion to open water at the rate of dozens of acres per year. Open water means no structure, no cover, and little food for birds and mammals in this environment. I'll cover these abominations of the marsh in a future post.

The photo is horrible, but you can probably count a few more geese here...feeding in the freezing rain at about 1pm during goose season...

About 30 species of birds winter at Blackwater NWR and the adjacent Fishing Bay WMA, and over 250 species visit the area every year during some part of their migration. I believe I heard that the Blackwater system winters around 500,000 ducks and geese in an average year. Conservation organizations like Ducks Unlimited, the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, Friends of Blackwater, and the Nature Conservancy have all put their money where their mouth is when it comes to stabilizing, protecting, and rehabilitating these amazing habitats. Other organizations (there are many, but I'm singling one out) have made a common habit out of complaining that the Refuge does not offer waterfowl hunting, but have not contributed one red cent to the area's protection, restoration, or even research. Or providing volunteers for hunting access, which a local group, Maryland Waterfowlers, is attempting to do. In my book, it's all about DOING something (even if it's mostly because you will benefit from your work), not just complaining that no one else is doing it. But in a future post (i.e. after duck season) we'll get back to what needs to be done, and what's being done, and what roles still need to be filled to protect this gem of a habitat.

Few more geese on a recent sunny day



Box Tree Stand overlooking two Pine Hammocks in the Salt Marsh...is this not worth saving?

(Trust me - click to enlarge this picture)






Friday, December 19, 2008

Hell Week!

Oh my God! This week was awful. I had at least NINE opportunities to hunt and I blew them all. I did manage to take some neat pictures at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, which I'll post soon. But we're undergoing some "pressure" due to the "financial climate" at Ol' Swampy's workplace and there is a meeting in the first week of January (flying the director into our field office - NEVER a good sign) to discuss "changing roles and responsibilities."

So I have been buckling down and making sure exactly what the boss man wants....Holy Sh*t I need to catch a break. Ever have one of those...years???...when nothing breaks your way - that's me, and 2008 is that year. Good riddance. I mean, it's ALL gone wrong.

One humorous anecdote - I took a second job teaching community college, and with that extra income I was able to buy myself an iPod. I like it but in 2 months, I really have not spent any time learning how to do anything but put more music on it. In fact, I just learned last week that if you shake the iPod violently, it goes into a "random shuffle" mode of all your music, which in my case means that you have Outkast followed by Johnny Cash followed by Suicidal Tendencies.

But I digress. As I was sitting in murderous traffic this evening, I thought to myself, "I bet this fancy iPod has a "greatest hits" feature." As I was looking for said feature, I wondered, "Man, given my general state of doom and angst, this could be interesting." Found it...."Top 25 Most Played." And when I saw the songs, I actually laughed...probably for the first time in 2 weeks. For your enjoyment and my humiliation, here are the top 25 most played songs on Swamper's iPod (with link to the video)....warning....you may need Prozac yourself, after reading this list:

Scott Miller - I'll Go to My Grave (Loving You)
Scott Miller - May the Lord Watch for Thee (As he Watches for Me)
Scott Miller - Good Night, Loser (this is on the list 3 times...yikes)
Tiger Army - Cupid's Victim
Avenged Sevenfold - To End the Rapture
Black Keys - I Cry Alone
Brad Paisley / Allison Krauss - Whiskey Lullaby
Camper Van Beethoven - Hoe Yourself Down
Dropkick Murphys - Fields of Athenry
Rammstein - Feuer Frei
Scott Miller - Daddy Raised a Boy
Screeching Weasel - Every Night
Against Me! - Baby, I'm an Anarchist
Scott Miller - Good Morning Midnight
Supersuckers - Evil Powers of Rock and Roll
Reverend Horton Heat - Loaded Gun

I guess I haven't had the iPod long enough to register 25 WHOLE "greatest hits" like the true classics above? Who knows. Happy holidays, losers!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Lessons in Staying Flexible

How'd you like to show up at this ramp for the first time, at 4:45am in the rain (no marina lighting of course)? (a lesson in scouting)
So....late waterfowl season opened today. As I sit at my desk, it's 38 degrees with light wind and rain. A perfect day for duck hunting. So what happened?
Option 1: hunting an isolated beaver swamp on the eastern shore of MD. Why not? The weather forecast was calling for 70 degree afternoon temperatures. This forecast didn't change until around the 11pm broadcast.
Option 2: hunting the lower Potomac River in a very productive private blind with the old tobacco farmers. Why not? I waited until 48 hours beforehand to commit, and the guys invited some other folks in the meantime.
Option 3: hunting the flooded rice along the Patuxent River with Mike. Why not? His transom is stuck down and the site is very shallow and muddy.
What's to learn? Always have an ace in the hole. Had I caught the correct weather forecast a few hours earlier, I would have probably seen some birds today. Oh well - one day lost.
So I'm definitely getting out thursday and friday mornings. Scouting's complete and logistics are all ready taken care of. Talk to y'all then!!!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Trouble-Bound New Orleans!


Well, don't know where to start this. Due to a variety of personal and financial issues, the wife and I haven't road-tripped much in the last year and a half. I really started getting the itch last week, sitting in a meeting and writing out realistic fun trips that we could possibly go on in the coming year. We hadn't discussed it at home, because it just hasn't been a high priority, given the oncoming "Great Depression II" or whatever. Regardless, I thought of:

1) South Florida for fishing (we used to travel down there, and the wife's family is from there).

2) South Texas for fishing, quail hunting, and visiting Houston (friend recently moved there)

3) Summer trip to RI, MA, and ME coasts (surfing and fishing - friend in RI)


Well, out of the blue yesterday, the Mrs. said, "Let's go to New Orleans this spring." I was ecstatic! I've been to New Orleans once before in 1995 (not Mardi Gras) and I got to see a lot of the city, and one of the nearby wildlife refuges, but I haven't fished, kayaked, crabbed, or camped down there. The natural resources are almost endless and it's going to be a killer trip.

Adding to the fun is that my fishing and boating will all be self-scouted & directed - fishing guides are insanely expensive down there due to the popularity of redfish angling. There's so much public marsh, and so much public access to it, that with good planning, a few days to get it right, and a little luck, it should be outstanding.

We used to make spring trips every year - Carribean or Central America (when I was a dirty but well-paid wetland consultant) and more recently the Southeastern US coastline....it's a nice break in April, when it's still cold and rainy and Maryland, and spring is very much underway in SC, GA, and FL.

More on the trip soon....duck season comes back in tuesday, but a warm front will preceed it by about 12 hours, so I'm not sure if I'll even bother before geese come back in season on thursday. We've been doing some scouting & I'll post pics soon - few ducks but some really neat habitat throughout Maryland. If we ever do get a good migration again (another topic for another day), I know we have food & cover for the birds.
Suspense is in the air.....Bayou Boogie somewhere between 4/15 and 5/10.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Getting My Head Straight


Went out with some fellow biologists for a few rounds of wobble-stand today. I've had one decent hunt, and several where I haven't fired a shot, and the late season (Dec 18 to Jan 24) hasn't even started, so time to brush up. I also recently acquired a Browning Gold Hunter 20 gauge and haven't had a good opportunity to really work with it. It's a beautiful firearm and, weighing in at about 6.25 pounds, I want to get used to shooting dove, teal, skeet, and (if I'm good), trap with it.



Now, bear in mind that I'm only an "average" shot (usually score 12 to 20 on trap, lifetime high 24), and that I have several basic shooting issues that I've been working on for about a year, namely, cross-eye dominance and follow-through issues. Oh yeah, and I've never shot trap with a 20 gauge before.


So four of us went down to Loch Raven for a few rounds and the club members were hospitable as always. It's a great "middle-of-the-road" facility, offering $5.75/round ($15 to $50 for 2 rounds is typical around here), a modest clubhouse, and snacks, drinks, cigars, and shells for sale (and they take plastic). And it's 15 minutes from home.


I took a really low-stress attitude and tried to get used to the little gun. Of all things, I found myself shooting significantly behind the clay. Worked really hard on keeping my face right on the barrel, which I think is why my shooting improved each round. Results? Drumroll.....


Wobble w/20 gauge, improved choke - 1st time.


5/25 (holy schnykes!)


9/25


14/25


I need a lot of work on this but it could have been worse, and the gun was like a dream! After 3 rounds we packed up and got some grub at Andy Nelson's BBQ. Got home, watched my Hokies win the ACC Championship, and it started snowing. Sound like a fine December saturday? It was - you shoulda been here.

Friday, December 5, 2008

NYC Thanksgiving Trip

Gray's Papaya, Home of Delicious Hotdogs and the "Recession Special."
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For those of you who follow this blog, it may seem a little odd to you that we would spend a holiday weekend in New York City. The very core of American consumerism. The things that are "most right" and "most wrong" about the United States can all be found in New York City.
And I guess that's the point. While I was born in Virginia 30-some years ago, I was the first - or one of the first - members of my family to be born in the south. You see, I come from a classic American family. My ancestors were a rag-tag mix of Swiss, German, and Polish immigrants that arrived in New York City and New England between 1700 and 1917, primarily 1890 to 1917 (with the rest of the starving Europeans). My family members found work in Hackensack, NJ's knitting factories and in the shipyards and factories of Brooklyn.
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My father's father - the first born American of his family, served in the 82nd airborne in Normandy, France, Belgium, and finally, the Ardennes and Germany, receiving two purple hearts and dozens of other medals along the way. He came home, became a sportswriter for NY Newsday, went to college on the GI Bill, and spent the rest of his professional life as an accountant for Planter's Peanuts. My grandmother, his girlfriend before the world, worked as a typist her whole adult life for the New York City public school system.
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They settled in my great-grandmother's house in Forest Hills, Queens, home of the Ramones, Hank Azaria, Jerry Springer, Ray Romano, Carroll O'Connor (Archie Bunker), and former home of the US Open of Tennis. My dad and his sister went to public schools, finishing at Brooklyn Technical High (my dad) and Forest Hills High (my aunt). None of my great-grandparents had gone to college. My Dad and my aunt attended Syracuse and Cornell, respectively - not a bad showing. My dad made his way south, eventually finding work in southeastern Virginia as a Team America-type individual (in his mind, at least).
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Since the Mrs. and I live in Maryland, while the rest of our immediate families live in VA and NC, we usually get the duty of paying our respects to the family in NYC. I'm just getting to the point (though I've been visiting New York since I was 10, probably even younger), where I am starting to search out some urban nature adventures in the City. But....they are there.


Statue of Mayor LaGuardia, ca. 1934


Rat-fitti, lower Manhattan


Bourbon selections at Wildwood BBQ in Chelsea (I think). Wildwood was OK but not nearly as exciting as Hill Country BBQ, the best "northern" BBQ I've ever had.

Anyway, just wanted to share some "non-scary" pictures of the Big City to you - if I can make it there, so can you.


Saturday, November 29, 2008

On Guides and Guiding

Last week, I had my second bad experience with a guide/outfitter in less than a year, as you may have read about on my brother's blog.

Let me sum them up:

Hunt 1 was a late season resident goose hunt (5 bird limit per person). I gave the guide a 4 day window that we could hunt (his choice). I told him that we were flexible to location (even state!) and day - we just wanted to be on top of the geese. Not difficult in FEBRUARY, right? We showed up to the location on time, and were told to start pulling grass out of the ground and to grass our own blinds (we had properly grassed blinds at home, WTF). The guide chose the location but had forgotten that the grass was green in that field. We were literally hunting in someone's yard (20 acre farmette), about 100 yards from their house, next to their pond. We scared out dozens of roosting geese (nice scouting, Mr. Guide!), and I only shot 4 times all morning. The "elaborate setup" included 4 goose floaters and 3 Big Foot Decoys. The guide was an above-average caller, which was the EXPECTATION. We had 3 paying hunters, and bagged a total of 2 geese. I've heard that the Guide is still upset that I haven't referred him to more clients. Hahahahahaha!

Hunt 2 was a mid-season combo goose/duck hunt (6 ducks + 5 geese) last week. I gave the guide a 3-day window (his choice), and told him that we would go anywhere the ducks were. He ultimately chose a spot that sounded public to me, but he assured me that the spot had no hunting pressure and that they had scouted the area VERY heavily, and "nobody can hunt there, there's no access." OK dude, I trust you.

Everything our guide, "Name Removed" told us about the hunt was wrong. First of all, the only thing "private" about the hunt was the ILLEGAL boat ramp we used on private land, to zip across 100 yards to a public island in the public Potomac River, all perfectly legal for anybody (with a MD resident license) to hunt. He told us to expect hundreds of mallards and black ducks from one direction, and a swarm of geese from the other.

We saw two single mallards (his calling was awful and he couldn't call them in), and saw our first flight of geese at 12:45pm...from the opposite direction. The guide tore the boat up and down the river (remember, "a barely hunted sanctuary"), and to my surprise, as soon as a flock of rafted birds saw the boat from hundreds of yards away, they IMMEDIATELY got up and hauled ass up the river. That is NOT how unhunted birds behave!!!! The guide encouraged us to shoot at birds from the boat, while the boat was in gear and under power (illegal), and his calling sounded like Squanto the Algonquin had carved a duck call out of a cattail. It was AWFUL. For his totally awesome decoy setup, he used a dozen goose floaters (old, chipped paint), about 10 GHG mallards, and about 4 GHG bluebills. At my house, I have burlap/hand-painted black ducks, hand-painted bluebills on Herters bases, flocked head goose floaters, and all kinds of good stuff. Why was I paying to hunt over dinged up, PLASTIC CRAP?

By 10AM, en route to a giant skunking (we had seen only a dozen black ducks, who zipped by about 200 yards up, while Dukk Man Dave blew high balls through his Quaker Boy (or whatever Wal Mart sells) Mallard call at them), the guide realized that we were extremely unhappy and started to say things like, "Hey if you get skunked, the next hunt is half price!" And "That's why they call it huntin'!" I swear, we almost sent him over the dam like they did in that movie "The Mission." Like, on a cross and the whole nine F-ing yards!!!!!!

He tried to get "on our side" by talking about all the poaching he does for deer, and how hilarious it all is to evade the Natural Resource Police - a group of people who I have an enormouse amount of respect & admiration for, even though I sure hate to see them headed toward my duck blind! PLUS the minor detail that I have dedicated my career (and my life) to wildlife conservation, and apparently it's all just a big joke to this jackass. WHO I HAD TO PAY.

At the end of the hunt, the conversation turned toward DuKk Man Dave talking about how the economy is bad and he needs all the help he can get, and then he let it slip that his "bonus from my regular job was only $11,000 last year." Homey, the after-tax take-home on my annual bonus this year was $352.00, which is less than we paid you for this pitiful excuse for a duck hunt, so....yeah....go ahead and shove it. Thanks Duck Head.

As we drove out, we saw thousands of ducks and geese roosted up on islands in the river, less than 10 miles from where we hunted. We could have easily hunted that stretch - by ourselves or with DukK Man. That is, if he had scouted like he claimed he had. At some point, when you've failed to deliver any modicum to your clients, you have to answer that either you:

1) lied to them (you did not scout or you did not have birds or you predicted the birds would leave), or

2) you're not a very good guide (you were not able to predict, in any way, shape or form, that the birds would leave the area or selected a different roost - and you missed it while scouting).

I'm sure some would respond, "Hey man, that's hunting/fishing/surfing." NO. That's "the outdoors" when you and I, Joe Hunter/Angler/Surfer, are doing it - getting totally fooled/skunked/tricked by the birds/weather/fish is not uncommon -and is often an important and worthwhile experience. However, guides get paid for their expertise and access to good areas that have not been overused. If you are a guide and you have trouble providing those services, how can you honestly take peoples' money, except out of sheer poverty or some other bizarre circumstance?

Now, I'm sure that if I booked a hunt with Tyler Johnson, who winters at least 1 million ducks and geese a year on his 2,500 acre duck farm, or Sean Mann, Goose Calling Champion of Champions, I might have a great experience.

But I don't think I'll be doing that. We have two boats (same exact boat that our guide had this time), plus two kayaks, and a total of about 12 or 15 dozen duck and goose decoys. We are decent, but not great, callers, and we understand how birds work. In the future, I'll be spending my money on food and lodging-not an idiot local guide- so we can hit the road together and spend 3 or 4 days on the same stretch of river. We'll mostly get skunked, and hopefully we'll get it figured out for one great hunt (per trip) that we'll never forget. Then we'll dry everything out, drive home, and plan on how we can do it better the next time. Harvesting game is great. But if you're doing it because you've paid for somebody else's (half-assed) recon, scouting, and local knowledge, what have you done, except shoot well (maybe)?

This goes for the other sports we pursue as well - we have the gear, and we have some knowledge, and we have TIME and a little bit of money. Let's put them to good use and actually learn a thing or two, right?

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the topic for now. Fire away, any of you guides out there. And I'm totally anticipating the line of, "sounds like you just had bad luck." But you've missed my point - I could have easily had the same success/luck, and a better overall experience (which is what I'm after), for less money, by doing it myself.

Then there's the little detail of business ethics. Guides are business owners. What ever happened to calling clients and saying, "Sorry - we just don't have birds/fish/surf/high water, and it would be irresponsible to show up there, have a bad time, and take your money. Let's reschedule for a better time or a different location - I want to make sure you come back and use my guide service every year, not just tomorrow." In any other business, that's how things are done.

But what do I know? Surely, in my 20 years of hunting, 30 years of fishing, 16 years of surfing, and 5 years of kayaking, I have not even STARTED to gain the wealth of knowledge that a "professional guide" has. What.Ever.

Cluster F*** On Ice

Air: 19 degrees, Water: 32 degrees. Ice: 1/4". What could go wrong?

Set out for an early morning out in the timber with Tugboatdude and Nate. In most years, we receive our first "true freeze" the second or third week of January. The last time we received one earlier in the season, it was the first week of January, and that was 2002! So imagine our surprise when, two days before TBD's arrival, the temperature drops to 19 degrees, and does not get above 34 for three days in a row. Since we've really only received one flight of birds so far, it was hard to know what the effects of this weather would be.

Well, we found out. We spent a half-hour slogging through 1/3" thick ice into the timber, and I think we had a nice little setup - about 8 woodie decoys, 5 oversized black ducks, 3 mallards, 3 full body black ducks, and the baby mojo. What could go wrong? Well, honestly, nothing really did go wrong. Nothing much happened at all. Saw a few single birds but they were roosting pretty hard on the river and not getting up. This is unusual because in weather that cold, the birds have to feed somewhere, even if it's just up and down the river. Geese were staying quiet on the river and were just not interested. We had a good time shooting the bull and just hanging out. Everybody was well dressed for the 23 degree morning so we were all pretty comfortable, despite the fact that we had to keep breaking ice out in the decoy spread.

I was comfortable, at least, until I smashed the ice over a beaver run. The pictures are out of order so start at the bottom.


The aftermath. And for the action shot............wait for it........
........wait for it............


The Piece de Resistance: Lost my footing and swamped my waders. Water in my right boot. Foot numb about 4 minutes later. 1 mile from the truck.

I think that about sums it up. Take away the frostbite and the cold I already had (!!!) and add a cigar, and it would have been a perfectly enjoyable morning in the swamp.

Bow Hunt #2


Still chasing the herd on the same farm. And suffered a loss at the hands of one of the most obvious rules in the outdoors - "stick with your plan until you are SURE it will fail. Change up early, and both the old and new plans are nearly guaranteed to fail."

So that's what happened. I knew from scouting that the deer were likely to use a field I'd already hunted. Problem with that hunt was that they use the field in the evening, and I was hunting in the morning. Well, here was my chance for an evening hunt. Just stick with the program.

Instead, at the last second, I broke towards one of the rear fields and a seldom-used stand because I had seen a large number of tracks through the harvested field. I had no recon on exactly WHEN those deer were moving through, but .....I don't know, I can't explain it. I was drawn to that field.

A number of factors, namely a stiff headwind that pushed my scent into the woods behind me, did not help with this hunt. Then again, I woke myself up snoring at one point around 4:30pm, so who knows? A cold snap was settling in and the deer SHOULD have been moving, but shooting time ended and I hadn't seen a single deer - a rare occurrence for a deer hunt in Maryland. I removed my arrow from the nock, loaded my pack, and climbed down, ready for the hike back up to the front of the property (and past the stand I meant to hunt). By this time, it was really dark, but there was a little moonlight.

As I crossed the front field and looked across it toward the area of the other stand, I saw 30-40 large "bumps" in the dark field. Since the field was harvested recently, and since the crop was soybeans, there should have been NO rise and fall in that field. I stood still and looked out into the dark. The bumps began to move - at least 30 deer, over 100 yards out into a field, in an area where they would have had to walk right past the stand I had meant to hunt. The fact that they were so far out in the open, 20 minutes after shooting hours ended, means that they were certainly rustling around on the woods edge (location of the stand) much earlier than that.

Oh well - I'll get 'em one of these days.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Maryland AP Goose Hunt


(more pictures soon)

Enjoyed a fun morning out with two coworkers on Kent Island, a small spit of land bordered by the Chesapeake Bay and the mouth of the Chester River in Maryland. The island has been moderately developed over the last 20 years, so in the place of large farms are now small farmettes and a few subdivisions. We hunted a 12-acre soybean field between two salt creeks where a mix of resident and migratory geese are roosting at night. To the east, across the Chester River, are larger corporate and family farms where the geese feed twice a day (and sometimes at night). So obviously, the trick is to entice these birds to use the fields near the roost. To aid us in our quest, we hunted over about 5 dozen goose "stuffers" (see above), which are stuffed geese supported by wire, and mounted on small plywood boards. For concealment, we used an A-frame blind against a hedgerow, grassed with fresh cedar branches and switchgrass.
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It was a moderately cold morning (about 30 degrees) and the geese were on the move about 30 minutes after sunrise. It wasn't cold enough to motivate them to really feed, so most of the birds were getting up off of the water, flying around, and landing back in one of the creeks without setting down to eat in the fields. We shot our first birds around 9am, another triple at 9:45am, and our last bird (no thanks to my shooting) at 11am, which placed us right at our limit. Then it was back to work, on the road. Great morning & a great start to goose season!



The farm we hunted is near the southern tip of the island

Friday, November 14, 2008

Make It Stop!

So, the rut's on, duck season has been back in for a week, goose season starts tomorrow, the fish are still biting, there's good surf at the beach, and it's been perfect blustery, cloudy hunting weather all week.

So why haven't I hunted, fished, hiked, kayaked, surfed or done anything else remotely fun outside for 3 weeks? And I'm not going out this weekend, either?

Seriously, I don't have a good answer except that having two jobs (biologist by day and community college instructor by night) has actually gotten my burnt out, with no energy to pursue the things I enjoy most.

I have 2 or 3 hunts scheduled for next week, and then Tugboatdude comes up here the week after for a few days of gunning. Worst case scenario, I have a goose hunt scheduled for next wednesday that I cannot back out of. Otherwise, sadly, I might!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Allaying Wetland Restoration Concerns Part II

A (heavily monitored!!) restored wetland in North Carolina.
Courtesy: North Carolina State University
So, I started looking last time at "why we do what we do" in the field of wetland restoration. Last time, I discussed the perceived problem that wetlands attract and hold mosquitos. While it's true that any system that is out of balance (like a bucket in your yard) can harbor mosquitos, a healthy wetland should kill as many mosquitos as it creates.
Onward and upward. Another frequent issue is that people want a "wetland," but they do not want a WETLAND. And yes, folks describe it in those terms. They usually mean one of three things:
1. They would like a fish pond
2. They would like a corn field that they can flood during duck season
3. They would like a shallow, mowed/grazed watering hole for livestock
All of those things have their place in our landscape, but none of them are wetlands. Why not? Let's back up just a moment.
A wetland is a type of habitat. A healthy restored habitat should contain food, water, and cover for its intended wildlife (always start with the end in mind, right??)
So, what are the typical intended wildlife for a restored wetland?
  • wading birds, shorebirds and waterfowl
  • amphibians and reptiles
  • aquatic insects and invertebrates

All of these species need water, cover from predators, and food. Now look back at the picture at the top of the post. See how overgrown it looks? That's one mark of a sustainable restored wetland. Another mark is that all those plants should be food producing, which is a little less evident from the photo. If you review my past posts, especially my duck hunting posts, you can see that my photos zero in on waterfowl food. If you are duck hunting and there's not sufficient food (and trust me, they know it), then all you have to offer birds is open water, of which there is no shortage!

The same is true for all wildlife. If there is food, but no cover, they will visit, but not stay. If there's cover, but no food or no water, they may stay the night, but will rarely spend time in the habitat.

So look at the "old weedy mess" in the picture above, and know that even though "you can't see the water!" (what a travesty!), and it looks like a "jumbled weedy mess," having food, water, and cover together in one place is the only sustainable way to make a wild place really work for wildlife.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Y'all Buildin' Another One of Them Skeeter Holes?

A recently completed "swampy mess" that we built in Maryland
  • Sorry for the bullet format - blogger is acting up lately, as you can see from my past few posts.

  • In my business (building wetlands), I get to work with all kinds of people. Birdwatchers, hunters, biologists, engineers, contractors, farmers, investment bankers. You name the career or background or outdoor hobby, I've worked with them.
For those of you who don't know how wetlands work, here's the bottom line. Wetlands are like nature's kidneys. They are natural systems that thrive on taking on enormous amounts of sediment, pollution, floodwaters, and overall environmental havoc, processing it all, and spitting out clean water as a result. In fact, nearly all sewage plants are replicated after wetlands' natural processes of water cleaning through filtration (push the dirty water through a physical filter) and detention (prevent the dirty water from running off until after some of the pollution falls out, or falls apart). And of course, wetlands support lots of outstanding wildlife, including many of our game species and endangered species.
  • So, obviously there's no down-side, right? People should be lining up, to take their flooded crop fields out of production, since they can't get a crop out of them 5 out of every 6 years, right?
  • Wrong. There are a lot of misconceptions about wetlands out there, even in areas of the country where wetland conservation has a strong presence. The title of this post, and the caption under the picture, reflect two actual questions I've received about wetland restoration in the last year alone. And I've received many more! Let's try to address the most common misconceptions about wetland restoration:
  • 1) All you're doing is building habitat for mosquitos
  • Why this is a common misconception: people encounter mosquitos in or near coastal marshes.
  • The truth: mosquitos spend very little time in wetlands, and tend to get hammered by predators in healthy wetlands - particularly predatory insects and insectivorous birds. Most of the mosquito species close to your home are resting in bushes and in your lawn, and most of them prefer to breed in spare tires and old buckets, not wetlands. In fact, the West Nile Virus was spread to North America on ships full of.....TIRES! If someone is really concerned about mosquitos on their property, they should clean their gutters, recycle/throw out old buckets and tires, and provide habitat for birds that eat mosquitos.

  • Next time: answers to some more common issues with restored wetlands:
2) I want a wetland, but I don't want a swampy mess with all of those weeds
3) The ducks like corn. They don't need all those weeds and bushes. The ducks need more flooded corn.
4) Wetland restoration will lower my property value
5) The wetland on my property is worthless, it doesn't have any standing water.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A little light on the ducks in Central Maryland

Tall cordgrass, Phragmites, Cattails, and deep water provide for some public duck hunting that could be best characterized as, "Mehhhhh."


Text later......


Scott and Rich wonder where the birds have gone.


The habitat is pretty reasonable for migratory birds, but not good enough to sustain moderate or high hunting pressure.


Picking up blocks



The lone duck who hasn't been hunted on this marsh



































Saturday, October 25, 2008

Wood Duck Remix

Buttonbush
Conditions were not particularly favorable for a return to our "secret spot" in Central Maryland (more on its "secret-ness" later), but in a 7-day early duck season, how can you stay away? Mike and I headed back down for a quick hunt, knowing very well that the wood ducks would fly early, and that no new mallards or other "big ducks" had arrived in the area. We got into the swamp around 4:45am and thank God, we were alone this time. We got set up quickly and just counted down until the 6:51am shooting time. The moon had waned quite a bit over the week, and it was dark in the timber. Really dark.

9AM, sunny skies, and still shadows everywhere.
In the darkness, we had wood ducks everywhere around us. Several landed less than 10 feet in front of us, swam around, and flew out. Several more nearly struck us in the head, as they flew through the timber at somewhere around 40mph, about 3 feet off the water. We knew the shooting would be quick, and very challenging.

This wetland has a ridiculous amount of duck food in it - smartweed, millet, tickseed, and obviously, lots of buttonbush.
We were right. Shooting time arrived, and ducks were all over, and we were still in a pitch black hole. Stress was high because we knew the birds would stop flying early, and yet we had no light. I finally spotted a pair of wood ducks over the trees who were locked up, and headed into our hole. I lost them in the dark treeline, but got another glimpse as they came close. My fingers were cold and I furiously tried to hammer the safety "off" as the birds sailed within about 2 yards in front of me. Unfortunately, the safety WAS off, and in my excitement and finger-numbness, I just couldn't make it happen. If I would have pulled the trigger, two birds would have gone home with me. It was so dark that Mike, standing about 10 feet to my right, had no idea that any of this was going on, and in the dark, could not see the two wood ducks which had now LANDED in front of him. The ducks, however, realized that something was wrong, and flew out, right at Mike's face, which was the first time he knew they were there. He shot, mostly out of surprise, and missed.
By this time it was about 7:15am. We had no other birds work close, and by 7:25am (sunrise was 7:22am), all the shooting on nearby farms, public land, and the River had stopped. We stuck around until about 9am, but did not see a single duck, at any altitude, after about 7:30am. The ducks were done.
The next "split" opens in about 3 weeks and hopefully by then, we'll have a few more birds in the area and some better game plans. Tugboatdude and myself have the first two weeks of January circled for travel to find big flocks of birds. We've got spots, or at least lodging, lined up from update New York, to Southeastern PA, to central VA. We are fighting all urges to make plans now, but it is tough!
One more day of early duck....let's see how it goes.






Sunday, October 19, 2008

Ducks in Flooded Timber

Flooded oak-willow forest, with dense beggarticks on the ground
I always talk about the first split being a "tune-up" hunt, and this year's opener was no different. Rolled out with fellow swamp-meister Mike for the opener of duck season in central Maryland. Mike had been hunting a wide open timber slough on public land for the last several years, and was convinced that the spot was "secret." Well, we parked on the access road around 4:30am....no other trucks on the road - good sign! We slagged through the woods and got right up on the spot, only to see........4 head lamps. I had not scouted - trusted Mike, and Mike was trusting his own experience, which means that we had no Plan B. Mike was beside himself - his spot was nearly impossible to get to, without using our route, or trespassing on private property.

Mike was not happy that when we showed up at the "secret slough" at 4:40am, there were already 4 guys set up in the middle of it.

We waded away in the dark, and eventually found a nice hole with a suitable amount of open water, but (typical of flooded timber), pretty limited visibility of incoming birds. According to Mike, the "new spot," which we christened "Beggar Tick Holler," had significantly more bird food floating around than the "secret spot." Ducks were in and out of our hole in the dark, which was pretty reassuring. They were right on top of us.
Although it felt like shooting time would never arrive, it obviously did. Our "buddies" at the next hole began lighting up the sky. It became apparent that we had a problem on our hands. As soon as birds were visible, 70-80 yards in the air - locked up to drop right into the "secret hole" (and possibly drop into our hole, about 1/4 mile away), the 4 amigos would light them up, and maybe 1 bird would drop, and 5 or 6 would fly away. They fired 8 - 12 shots per volley, whether it was 1 duck, or 10 ducks in the air, and they killed very few. Throughout the morning, we had shot raining down on us. The 4 amigos were making shots well in excess of 100 yards, if birds started to circle high. Why wait for them to decoy or lock up? Just sky-bust them! I don't know what I expected for a saturday opening day, on public land. I should have been prepared.

When you're down in the hole. That's me.

We finally settled into a little groove, and got a few shots in. We had a wood duck fly by, about 70mph, about 7 feet off the ground. Pulled off 2 decent shots and brought him down. It was a little positive affirmation!


Decoy among the wild millet and beggarticks

Predictably, the wood ducks got sick of getting punished by around 8am, and we had scattered mallard pairs flying in after that. Apparently "Beggar Tick Holler" doesn't have enough room for them to land (especially under constant gunfire), so they went right to the open water of the "secret spot," where they were shot at 6 to 12 times, and still managed to fly away, generally unharmed. We waited around until about 10am, and called it a day. We'll be back there later this week, once the birds manage to cool off a little bit.

The wetlands - this timber slough was very interesting. There are several long, narrow crop fields that are parallel to one another. Inbetween are neglected, seasonally flooded, forested wetlands that are oddly, also parallel. This is not a natural landscape feature. Restoration ecologists (like me) refer to these sites as "made land." Poor farmers in the early 20th century realized that their fields were too wet, so using whatever equipment and horses they could mobilize, they stole topsoil from the wettest areas and piled it up on the highest areas, which then became "made arable lands." Or "made lands." The wetter, lower areas became even wetter and lower, and were essentially abandoned, other than for timber harvesting.

This is important because very few landscapes in the Mid-Atlantic have been "left alone" for the bulk of the 20th century. These wetlands are one of those few. They have very high value for wetland wildlife, particularly amphibians but also waterfowl, because the natural (but amplified) drying - flooding cycle produces a huge amount of food for critters. Once the flooding starts, the food is readily available to anything that can swim. The drying-flooding cycle is also important because fish are excluded from the habitat - very important for the production of amphibians, endangered invertebrates, etc. So the take home lesson is that even though this is not - in any way - a "native wetland," it is very important to wildlife, and it is very productive -perhaps more productive (in pounds of bugs, seed, etc) than it would have been naturally.

Not a bad place to spend a saturday morning in October.

Beggar-ticks


Button-bush, a wood duck's favorite food


Friday, October 17, 2008

First Archery Day

Not quite shooting time!
Well, archery season has been in down here for a month, but you wouldn't know it. Work and life have been busy, and honestly, I have been putting more effort into getting ready for duck season, and hoping (against hope) that maybe I could go surfing just one more time before the water gets cold. Anyway, today was my first chance, and it was really great to get out.



Oak-Pine forest with holly, bay, and blueberry in the shrub layer

I'll have to change things up for my next visit to this particular farm, because when I was getting close to my tree stand (about 5:50 am), I turned on my head lamp to see exactly where it was. I saw a beady set of eyes.....which in bow season, is usually a fox. I walked about 3 more steps and saw....about 15 sets of beady eyes! The entire deer herd has been sleeping under my stand!!!! Which equates to great evening hunting, but....well....keep reading.

So I turned the light off, but they jumped off and spun out into the woods. They never came back. More deer worked their way into that forest stand, but they were working a small draw about 80 yards inside where I was, in very thick brush. I could hear them, and could often see a nose, or a hoof, or a tail inbetween blueberry stems, but they had no interest in getting closer to the edge of the forest, where I was. I did not ever have a shot at a deer, but it was a great dry run. Nothing broke, everything went OK. We'll try that treestand in the evening next week sometime.

And oh yeah.....DUCK OPENER TOMORROW!

See you fools later. Thanks for stopping by.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Wish List for Duck Season 2008-2009

Been there, done that.


Prior to the season getting underway, I always try to make a list of real objectives relative to hunting season. Something a little more significant than, "hunt five days a week," "kick lots of ass," and "buy ammo ahead of time." And since I titled this "wish list," I'm meaning a lot more than "buy 5 dozen Bigfoot Decoys."
A lot of important things get forgotten, especially when our hunting suddenly gets heavy. So here you have it. Anybody else have their own wish list?


1) Avoid any preventable serious injuries or damage to hunters, dogs, and gear.

2) Be conscious of my shooting - avoid lapsing into bad habits.
3) Follow the birds, instead of following my own habits and favorite spots. Be willing to travel as far north or south as required, especially during the late season.

4) Evaluate invitations a little closer - don't waste a day off on a horrible hunt. It's OK to graciously decline.

5) Take advantage of waterfowl hunting on state forest properties. Regulations and hunting pressure are far less than they are on nearby wildlife management areas, and the habitat isn't all that different.

6) Enjoy the hunt. Don't go just to go. Make real memories. Be patient and make it count.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Duck Season's Around the Corner

Scouting after a long week of work - friday evening at a beaver swamp in northeastern Maryland, October 10, 2008 - just add water, cold weather, and ducks.
In Maryland, you can really feel it in the air now. One week 'til the first split of duck season. While daytime temperatures are still in the upper 70s, nighttime temperatures are regularly dipping into the low 50s, and almost every night, I can hear geese and ducks flying and calling....despite the fact that we live in a suburb near I-95. Geese are feeding for an hour or so each morning on freshly cut corn, and of course, young winter wheat. The ducks are really staying out in the marshes and open water. No need for them to look for food just yet. Eventually, they'll be here. During the warmest part of each afternoon, "summer wildlife" is out in abundance. Hopefully that's a sign that fall is really coming.

Southern Leopard Frog, Cecil County MD

Bumblebee on Black Adder Hyssop - our yard, Oct 11, 2008


Pickerel Frog plays it safe - Kent County, MD Oct 10, 2008

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Pushing Dirt

This week, we are in the middle of creating two freshwater wetlands in a field in eastern Maryland. Here, this excavating pan, pulled by a Case tractor, is laying down clay to create a berm. The berm will hold water during the winter and spring months, providing habitat to wildlife.

In this photo, the tractor-pan and a D5 dozer create the desired elevations in the wetland basin, while laying down more clay for the berm. Once the winter rains begin, up to 18" of water may be present in the basin. As the growing season starts, the water will be gradually drawn down (naturally and artificially), which simulates the hydrologic cycle in this part of the world. Some deeper pools are planned within the wetland - they will hold water later in the spring.

The other wetland on the site will be an excavated wetland, or "pothole." It will only drain naturally, and will hold water long enough to produce amphibians in May and June, as they come out of their larval stages. Wetland shrubs like elderberry and buttonbush will surround the pothole.


It's still very dry out here. Here's a wetland in Maryland that we restored in November 2007. It was bare dirt. Even though it's dry right now, look at how much it's taken off, in just one year.



Saturday, October 4, 2008

Skunked at Loch Raven

Took a morning off and headed out on the water at Loch Raven Reservoir, right around dawn. Forecast was for winds 0-5mph, low temp 49, high temp 71. No rain for the past 3-4 days....pretty much a perfect day for fishing. Right? Well, I started catching fish on my second cast and it was non-stop action (smallmouth, juvenile largemouth, panfish) for about 45 minutes. Then the "0 to 5mph wind" turned into 15mph with gusts of 25mph, right down the length of the 33,000 acre reservoir. It was just special. The fish got real spooky in a hurry, and I caught one more fish in the remaining 3 hours I was out on the water. I tried every artificial lure under the sun (had the entire jonboat to myself, so there was plenty of room for gear), and it just shut down.
Oh well....maybe it's a sign that it's time to start focusing on hunting again. And of course, it was great to not think about work or money for a few hours, and just watch the birds and fish move around. And I did get to fish an area by boat that I'd only ever hit from the shoreline before, a place called "Dead Mans Cove." It was underwhelming, but there are some neat little holes in there.

Our first Atlantic Population geese are mixing in with the resident birds. The AP birds look tiny.


No shortage of structure in Loch Raven!


Wood ducks have returned this week, as well.


Look like 0-5mph wind to you? This is in a protected cove!