Sunday, June 29, 2008

Garden Progress late June

Honeybee on perennial Salvia "Midnight", photo by Amy

It is hotter than the surface of the sun this weekend, so I am not chasing fish or any other kind of wildlife for that matter. Here's what's going on at home!

The bees are less interested in the Clematis...

...but very interested in the Common Milkweed. I put Milkweed seed out in 2005, first got plants in 2007, and got our first blooms this summer. They are so pale that I think the wildflower patch needs a dose of manure in the spring...

Here are the summer's first tomatoes, Tiny Sweet Million. We have the bees to thank for them also.

One of the problems with heavily-modified flowers is that in the pursuit for color, or tolerance to some kind of plant stress, the horticulturalists often select-out the scents attractive to bees and pollinators. Not one bee will visit this Bee Balm (Raspberry Wine) this summer.

We have several, but not an abundance of, Carolina Mantis juveniles. I wonder how they got here? I saw one yesterday that was about 1" long...hopefully not the last survivor!

Not all visitors are welcome. Cutworms have torn up my tobacco plot twice this summer already. During the first infestation, they also whooped up on my Scotch Bonnet Peppers. We have an overly bird-friendly yard, but unfortunately the cutworms usually come out only at night, when the birds aren't feeding.

Year's first sunflower - black oil.

One of several bullfrogs in our small pond. What's up with his left eye? Yes, those are mosquito larvae. Yes, I thought I had already killed them all!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

To My Lovely Coworkers

I need to start this update with a little note. My coworkers have found this blog and they are pretty pleased with themselves about that! If reading this blog and breaking my stones about it is the closest thing they are getting to spending personal time outside, then I am plenty comfortable with that. I love you guys....but seriously??

At any rate, through our organizational politics, I was asked to come "assist" with a pond rehabilitation project on the PA/MD border yesterday evening. The pond is on a farm that drains to a cold water fishery - the Gunpowder River, downstream of Prettyboy Reservoir and upstream of Loch Raven Reservoir. Which is to say that it was created by building a dam across the stream and its floodplain, a practice which is now illegal in Virginia and Maryland. Ponds in these types of drainages are pretty nuanced in their ecological cost/benefit. The benefit of these habitats is that they are often in areas where the only non-riverine standing water is created by beavers, so the habitat for birds and amphibians who need standing water is very limited. When someone creates this habitat, the wildlife response is pretty immediate. In addition, manmade ponds are typically more permanent and stable habitats than beaver ponds. Which is a great thing.

On the "cost" side of these ponds are two important factors. One is thermal loading. Unless these ponds are designed exactly right, with something called a cold water discharge, these ponds serve to heat up the cold streamwater from upstream, deplete its oxygen, and send it on down to the rest of the cold water habitat. This complicates survival for trout, and many of the invertebrates on which trout feed. In this way, these ponds are no different than a parking lot next to a trout stream, which is pretty awful.

The second "cost" is even more staggering - flood hazard. Since impounding (damming) a cold water stream in many states out here is now illegal, many of these old mill ponds and bass ponds are old by default. Many were built without power equipment, and many were built using whatever material was around, including stones, concrete, stumps, bricks, sand, you name it. Any engineer will tell you that those are all things that serve to weaken a dam. And sure enough, the older and more overgrown a pond becomes, the less a landowner will maintain it. In the case of the pond I visited yesterday, the outfall pipe became clogged with logs, and the pond overtopped onto the neighbor's property....and the state road down the hill....all on its way to the clean, sandy Gunpowder River, to dump off a big load of mud and silt. Let's just say that the neighbors, the County, and the state are not pleased. Had the dam been breached, people and/or property would have been hurt.

Now, the state has "Dam Safety Standards" to prevent those types of catastrophes from occuring, but old, servicable ponds are generally exempt. However, once any major repair work is needed, the State typically requires the ponds to come into compliance with the current regulations. In fact, the state of Maryland has an inventory of every dam over 36" tall in the entire state. In the case of the pond I visited, there is a dispute over what repair work is "needed." The more work is needed, the more likely the entire pond, outfall structure, and dam will have to come into compliance with the current regulations. It's the difference between a $15,000 price tag and a $200,000 price tag. We'll see what happens. As is usually the case, numerous agencies, contractors, consultants and lawyers are already involved.

As a side note, the landowner's contractor invited me to fish the pond while I was there. Due to the heat and sun, there was no use fishing it until about 6pm, so we spent the time before that talking about how to make this pond work for birds, not just fish. Once we started fishing, the action was not really fast but produced some exciting strikes on medium poppers and topwater lures, as well as plastic tubes and crawfish. Here are a couple of my bass (in addition to the top picture) from the evening.

Say what you want - have you caught a bigger fish this week? I wanted to get his picture quickly and get him back in the water ASAP. Yes, a photographer would have been helpful.

A small but feisty guy - caught on a 2" red and black soft craw.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Fishing Loch Raven Reservoir

Note: for detailed tips on how to fish Loch Raven Reservoir, click here (how to access LRR) and here (what types of fish and habitat to target at LRR)
Not a bad view for a saturday morning

I decided to get up early and get a few hours of fishing in. The weather was beautiful and I had pretty high hopes. I planned to fish Loch Raven Reservoir because it's the closest "real fishery" to where we live, only about 15 minutes away. LRR receives a lot of fishing pressure, in addition to a lot of passive use like mountain biking and kayaking. However, for whatever reason, the place still produces trophy bass on a regular basis.

Access to the shoreline is not an issue, but the City and County are very restrictive about what boats go on the reservoir, due to the threat from zebra mussels and other critters. As a pretty fair exchange, they do offer jon boat and canoe and kayak rentals, which I'd like to take advantage of sometime this summer.

The reservoir is an impoundment of the Gunpowder River, and the shoreline used to be the site of numerous mills and factories in the area now called Dulaney Valley. In the 1800s, it went by the whimsical name of "The Valley of Jehosophat."

"Old Timber Cove" has tons of structure, and the bottom is very shallow sand that transitions to a steep sandstone dropoff. The 3lb+ bass were about 5' deep right down the face of the dropoff. The 1-2lb bass were at the surface.

Anyway, the hike was easy and the mosquitos weren't out - always a good thing. Fish of all species and sizes were feeding on the surface, which is convenient if you can throw something at them that floats, and looks like a critter.   For once, I actually caught more bass than panfish. I think that was because my topwater tackle, all between the size of 1/4" and 1", was much bigger than what the panfish were eating - basically, tiny beetles falling in the water. Here's one of the few nice panfish I caught - a bluegill. He looks pretty upset but he was barely hooked on this wooly inline spinner, and I released him 5 seconds later.

If the bass are at the surface at 9am on a warm June day...they are hungry for something!

As I mentioned, I stuck with really small tackle and the UL rod, but a fly setup would have really nailed them today. I'll work on that and get back to you!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

NYC Trip

Longshoremans Pier D, Hudson River, New York City

We just returned from an exhausting trip to NYC, in honor of my grandmother's 90th birthday. The travel was reasonable - we drove to central NJ and took trains, subways, and taxis from there. Gas is $4.59 in NYC (and parking is $30-$40/day), so.....yeah....the train it is!

Many of our family trips to NYC have been extremely hurried in the past, trying to see everybody and do everything. In addition, several friends have relocated businesses or their whole lives up to NYC, so there are more people to see in the city every year. In some ways, this is great, because we always get to go back to our favorite restaurants, particularly Hill Country BBQ, Mama Buddha, and Wiggles (ha ha ha).

Outside of these constraints is the fact that New York City is a fascinating place for anyone who enjoys observing nature. Of course, I don't mean undisturbed or pristine nature, or even nature that is clean enough to touch without gloves. But nature abounds in the City, especially in the rivers and islands immediately off of Manhattan. The natural history there, certainly of the last 150 years, is one of tolerance to all kinds of human activities, from wetland filling (all of southern Manhattan was coastal marsh prior to about 1840, when it was filled in with rock), to livestock operations (Central Park was full of hogs until the late 1800s), to disease, rats, and overpopulation. SOUNDS FABULOUS!

But....what to make of the stuff that can still survive there?

Healthy beachgrass and decked walkway in Riverside Park

I would really like to tour and fish the outlying islands of the City, but I had never kayaked either the East River (a death wish anyway, between vicious currents, strong tides, and heavy boat traffic) or the Hudson River (just heavy boat traffic and strong tides). Well, apparently, the Downtown Boat House has a walk-up, free kayaking program in mid-town on the Hudson River, along Riverside Park. I was pretty skeptical, since 1) nothing in New York is ever free, and 2) how badly do I really need to catch hep-A from the Hudson River? And 3, their pier is between the NYC sanitation pier (where they load trash onto barges) and the Carnival Cruise Line Food Storage Pier.....lovely scenery.....

Kayaking in the Hudson River between Manhattan and Union City, NJ

But I walked up and the Boathouse's volunteers were really nice. They hooked me up with a cheesy (but clean) sit-on-top kayak, and some busted up paddle missing a hunk out of the blade. As soon as I started paddling out, I saw a floating surgical glove and got a little freaked out, luckily there was no more sketchy trash out in the water. I was able to get out about 800 or 1,000 feet from the dock and kind of feel out the magnitude of the currents in the River. The outgoing tide was no joke! I stayed out in the water for about 45 minutes and finally decided that I had maximized my potential exposure to all things contagious and microscopic, so I decided to head in.

Both the Hudson River and the East River are full of abandoned piers. These areas, as you might learn from Mike Iaconelli's City Limits Fishing , present fish and critters with some decent habitat. To you and I, it's a pile of rocks, but to a blue crab, it's a reef. Here's one of the most amazing spots I found....the historic Longshoremans Pier (Pier D). The water is about 15 feet deep...true benthic habitat.

Now granted, you would lose a lot of fishing tackle in the "neutrally buoyant" flotsam and jetsam underwater, but you can't tell me that this structure does not hold big fish! The pier was the last on the Hudson River to be operated by longshoremen, and not by rail operators. It burned and halfway sunk into the river in 1971, and a 2003 demolition project was halted in an effort to preserve this small hunk of the City's Marine Trades industrial heritage. I'm glad they kept it!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Weekend at the Delaware Shore

Roan in Slower Lower Delaware

There's always 2' surf somewhere on the Delmarva!

Well, there are a lot less high-flying adventures for ol' Swamp Thing here, now that gas has reached $3.99 / gallon in our area. However, we know a good opportunity when we see it.


The surf club I belong to participates in an annual fundraiser for the Surfrider Foundation, the Toes on the Nose Longboard Team Challenge in Ocean City, MD. Since I no longer ride a longboard (last session on one was in 2006!), I figured I would just show up, support our teams (we normally field a competitive team, and a "drinking team" for the event), get belligerent and sunburned, and eventually go back to our friend's house and prepare for some "real" surfing sunday morning.

Of course, that's not how it went down. Around 7am on saturday, I was out in the surf on my longboard in the dense fog, lamenting at how out of shape I am, when our current club president paddled out and yelled "You're on Team 2! Is that cool?" Of course, I said, "Yes," which really meant, "No, not ever." I have competed in several types of surfing contests before, and my personal opinion is that competition formats ruin everything I love about the sport - quiet, relaxation, self-competition, communion with nature. Add a bunch of competitive surfers, regulatory surf zone buoys, bullhorns, a PA system, and score cards....and it's all lost. To me, anyway. But at least this contest is for a good cause.

Anyhow, I received my day-glo green contest jersey and waited in the queue for our turn to suck, I mean, dominate, the competition. It did not help that the waves were 2', weak, and inconsistent...let alone hard to read in the fog. We did OK in the warm-up heat, which is scored, but no team is eliminated as a result, and I took another breather. I gathered up enough strength and motivation to really get it done during the elimination round (Round of 16), but then I was truly (sadly) exhausted. Well, lo and behold, our team (including me) advanced to the semi-final round! My feelings were really mixed because I was exhausted, it was almost 100 degrees outside, the waves were pretty awful, and at some level I still wanted to compete and win.

Yours truly, trying to slip in front of a sloppy 2' wave. Note the "Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker" Stance. Often practiced, seldom mastered.

To prevent a long story from becoming longer, suffice to say that we failed to advance to the semi-finals. At that point, the drinking began in earnest, and I started to coordinate my beach evacuation with Aim, who was shopping north of the MD/DE border somewhere.

Eventually Aim made it through the Hot Rod Show / Senior Week traffic in the Swamp Mobile and we headed back to chill out a little bit. Illegally, we took Roan out on the beach in the Delaware Bay, where the horseshoe crab spawn is wrapping up. Roan had a blast and he was happy to get cooled down. Everybody relaxed saturday night, as the 99 degree heat did not subside until about 1am.

Our host for the weekend..a pretty accomplished and mellow waterman

On sunday morning, we grabbed a quick surf at historic Fort Miles ......with about 20 other new friends I'd never met before:( . Oh well - everybody surfs weekends during the summer. The waves were not super cooperative, but I got to ride my "stand-by" board - a 7'8" WRV fun-fish, which is a great little wave catcher in surf up to about chest-high. Some fun drop-ins and fast bottom turns were had, but between the big crowd, poor waves, and my out-of-shape self, the advanced technical stuff stayed in the proverbial "bag of tricks" for another day. As always we were blessed with amazing food from our friends at Dogfish Head, and some great fellowship with other surfers and all of Roan's labrador friends.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Secure Our Borders!

An undocumented, possibly enemy combatant (African) Glossy Ibis hunts fiddler crabs at a restored marsh in Delaware. Yes it's blurry - the humidity was at about 2,000% yesterday! Everything was coated in steam.

Not to take the homeland security issue lightly, but in my line of work I am regularly faced with dilemmas about wildlife management practices that deal with non-native species. The local game or wildlife managers usually say things to the effect of, "We used to increase bird use by (name a habitat practice), but we had to stop that completely once the (name a plant or animal from Asia) showed up."

Often, these invaders show up as giant frogs or 16 foot tall grasses, or 45' long vines. But peoples' thoughts change once the subject is a little "cuter." There are many, many examples, but while touring several of our recently restored wetlands yesterday in Delaware, I saw two of these species in particular, the glossy ibis (above), and the cattle egrets (below), both recent arrivals from the west coast of Africa.
Two cattle egrets (both dark phase adults) hunt frogs and tadpoles at a recently restored freshwater wetland in northern Delaware. We dragged those logs and stumps out there with bulldozers!

So how did these guys get here? The current speculation is that both species were blown over during hurricanes in the mid to late-1800s. Neither have truly become "invasive," and in recent decades, both species have settled down into their own niches, existing in moderate numbers on the east coast. Both are colonial bird species, establishing rookeries in wildlife refuges in the northeastern United States. Neither seem to be overly destructive - the glossy ibis targets wildly abundant fiddler crabs for food in brackish marshes and impoundments, while cattle egrets prefer to associate with livestock and pick bugs off of the large mammals.

So what can be done? Really - nothing. Migratory birds move naturally. Sometimes storm events move them out of their range. Hawaii is a good example - many of the birds now common to Hawaii blew in on storms over the last 1,000 years. What we CAN do is encourage people to not manually move birds, because those coddled, enabled movements cause ecological problems like those associated with the mute swan, house sparrow, starling, and many others.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Urban Kayaking...1861

I took advantage of some free time on sunday night and put the kayak in on the lake down the street from our house. This short trip is very convenient but a little sketchy sometimes due to the very urban element and the water quality (this lake, once a Baltimore City Reservoir, is blamed for the city's typhus outbreak ca. 1869....although since typhus is typically spread by lice and rats, I think this may be an unearned reputation).

Regardless, I put in around 6pm, upstream of the 1861 pumping station. There are no boating facilities or ramp of any kind, so it's always interesting to see how many other boaters are out. This time - two other boats out. The weather was warm (80) and the wind was calm so it was a pretty easy outting. Just for fun, I took along my light spinning tackle in case I ran into any fish.
I've been fishing this 100-acre lake for about 6 years, and paddling it for 2 years, and I have yet to catch a largemouth bass over 12", even though I have seen them in the water. I believe the reasons behind this are:
1) constant sedimentation and runoff of fine silts (poor egg/fry survival)
2) poor water quality in general (fish stress and disease)
3) extremely high carp population in the "upper lake" (carp feed on bass eggs)
4) persistent illegal harvest of undersize fish (do I need to elaborate?)
5) my lack of finesse with soft plastic lures (just being honest!)

Anyway, it can't hurt to try, right? I paddled around for a bit looking for birds, because the area represents a pretty unique bird sanctuary - a decent forested buffer around the lake is owned by the City, and most of the nearby residential lots are 20+ acres in size, also forested. Over the years, I've seen or heard a wide variety of orioles, thrushes, and warblers while on the lake. Didn't hear or see anything too interesting, other than this yellow-crowned night heron, who was stalking a bullfrog along a shoreline.

Our little lake has an awful lot of fish habitat. In fact, if the water quality and carp problems were ever addressed, it would be a very high quality fishery, for that reason alone. The primary types of habitat structure available are stone cliffs, woody debris, and overhanging branches.

Angler's nightmare - but a great place to hunt for food if you're a fish

The best cliff on the lake - like an iceberg, most of it is underwater....

Look at this long-eared sunfish!

I did eventually see a nice (2lb or so) bass snuggled up next to a floating log, but I pretty much ruined that opportunity by hitting the log with my kayak....he slinked away into deeper water.

I caught over 30 crappie, they were extremely fiesty and wild (not stocked fish), and the colors on some of them were stunning!
The sun started to set and, not wanting to be locked in a City Park at night, I boogied on back to where I had put in. The search for the last bass in Baltimore City will have to wait...and I imagine all the little guys I caught were happy to be left alone after I released them all.

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Over 12 years ago, I started this blog. There were very few conservation or outdoor blogs at the time, few websites with fast-breaking con...