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)

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!)



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."
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.
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.
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).
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.

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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...