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

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 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.


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.


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!

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