Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Now, Woodcock Walk It Out

American Woodcock
I was at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge for work today, and despite the wind, I managed to see some pretty impressive wildlife. One was this fella, who was hunkered down on an asphalt service road, trying to keep warm. When our truck approached, he launched into his dance (see also below, and the movie link below).
The little woodcock is a bit of enigma in several ways - primarily because it's a shorebird that lives not on the coastal mudflats, but in the forests, more specifically, shrub wetlands, and even more specifically, wet alder thickets where the soil is still dry enough to support earthworms...the woodcock's favorite food. The greatest threat to it are the loss of habitat to humans, followed by the natural succession of shrub habitat into mature forest habitat (which holds more woodcock predators). The natural pattern of forest fires on the east coast has been so disturbed that natural shrub habitats are becoming pretty rare, as they age and are taken over by aggressive tree species.
The American Woodcock is basically restricted to the eastern half of the United States, where it's still occasionally sought out as a high (culinary) quality game bird. Males are territorial and female birds visit the nesting territories of several males each spring before choosing one for a nest site.
So what's up with that crazy strutting dance? There are two theories. One is that the dance evolved from a male vs. male territorial display into a mating display. The other is that the dance evolved from a feeding behavior (shaking the ground to stir up more delicious worms) into a mating display. Regardless, I give, you, the strutting woodcock.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Winter Blahs

This is absolutely the toughest time of year. It's certainly no colder than January, but I'm often ill-prepared for the day's weather since there's little threat of it having a fatal impact on me during my walk from the front door to the truck, or from the truck to the office. Any other time of year, at any time of day, I can give you a detailed 72-hour forecast for the area where I plan to be on those days.
I was sitting around and thinking about the February blahs, and how completely unmotivated I feel right now, and it hit me. It has nothing to do with the weather, or the short daylight, because I battle those - quite happily - in December and January every year. I'm unmotivated because I have few (to no) extracurricular constraints on my schedule. Right now, I get home from work on friday, with absolutely nothing planned for the weekend. Why is that? Well, this past weekend, the forecast was for a high of 40 degrees on saturday and a high of 32 on sunday, with freezing rain all morning. Temperate enough to go out, but not quite enough to be inviting. Combine that with short day lengths and my inability to convince anybody else to go outside, and you have......sloth.
Things usually start to break loose in April, but this February has just been dreadful. The weather (near constant freezing rain with rain and snow mixed in) doesn't help, nor does the constant gloomy economic forecast. I'm working a second job (teaching) but the paychecks haven't started coming in yet...and the first few checks will be dedicated to sexy things like transferring a boat & trailer registration from VA to MD, and buying new pants and socks for work. In a transition that's both good and bad, I did our taxes the other day and found out that while we'll be receiving a refund check (yay!), it will be about 70% less than the refund we've received in years' past. Yeah "unfortunately" we paid off two student loans, and we're paying much less interest (due to loan age) on our mortgage and remaining student loan....which means...we didn't mean our deduction caps for the first time. How did that happen? Oh well.
I really want to be motivated, and I'm an "action" guy, but I'm just not feeling it right now. I'm happy that we both are still employed, but I know that things could change in 6 months or 12 months if the economy doesn't turn around. Guess I'm just keeping my head down and waiting for spring. Spring runs of fish, warmer surfing waters, and spring turkey season all come around in April. And we've got a fishing & surfing trip to Folly Beach, SC planned for the first week of April too. Maybe the mosquitos will chase away the cloud that's following me!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Why The Outdoors is for Everyone and How We've Failed to Provide it To Them

Kids gather at the Delaware Ducks Unlimited Greenwing Event

This topic, a challenge by the Outdoor Bloggers Summit, is an easy one for me. People who know me, come afield with me, or work with me will roll their eyes, because whenever I have an audience, this topic comes up - it's on "heavy rotation," they would say.
Let's get right to it. "The Outdoors is for Everyone" is a rallying cry for the recruitment and stewardship of new outdoorsmen and women in our generation and the next generation. And in every sport in which I participate, the greatest source of resistance for "new participants" is surprisingly, from those people who are involved in the sport already - or so they say. How could this happen? How could we let this happen? What's really at risk? What can we do to make sure that the outdoors is for everyone? Why is it essential?
Pour yourself a drink, because it's going to take awhile to tease this all apart.
So, first things first. Let's look at regionalism. The nation's population, and our political representation, is not equally distributed across all 50 states. Most Americans are represented by suburban politicians who themselves may have spent a few weeks of their childhood on the old family farm, but their own children have not experienced this (because the farm has been subdivided by that generation into 5 acre lots). I don't believe that rural people are disenfranchised in our political system, the Farm Bill and homeland security funding being obvious evidence of the contrary, but rural acres are certainly disenfranchised. What does that even mean?
Our natural resources agencies, at every level, face a dilemma every day. That dilemma is whether they utilize funds to protect, restore, or manage rural lands; or whether they utilize funds to increase public access. And this is where it gets contentious. In populated areas, public access almost always wins out. Since I use public lands, I can appreciate this. However, we've got to evaluate, what "access," is this, really? I believe I could conclusively argue that expenditures on trails, boat ramps, and other infrastructure associated with the "green" or "outdoors" experience, are down, while the purchase of "ambiguous urban open space" is up. Mowed, open fields. Not really set up for sports. Just mowed, open fields. The planners believe that if this flat, green space exists, it's equivalent in value to a football field, a forest, or a beach.
I'm not here to make the same, tired old argument that state DNR funds should be used in the rural areas, "where the resource" is, and not in urban and suburban areas. The Chris Orlet contingency obviously feels this way, but since he makes his living by writing exciting fictional pieces about interstate roadkill (now that's an outdoorsman! Hot Damn!), I'll leave him alone. In fact, I'm here to argue strongly against that old argument. How could I? Go back to the population argument. If we do not have green infrastructure (ponds, boat ramps, trails) for people in suburban and urban environments to become involved in fishing and hunting, who are we going to recruit? This is where Chris Orlet comes in (sorry): "We don't want THOSE people out in the field." No retort is needed.
I'll lay my primary reason out first, instead of making you work for it - we have no choice. Do you understand? If we falter on this, the consequences will be dire. You, the 55 year old primitive archery hunter. You, the 23 year old falconer. You, the 36 year old fly fisherman. As I've laid out in painful detail above, the country has changed. As of 2008, fewer than 10% of Americans hunt (some surveys show 5%). Fewer than 20% of American go fishing. There are over 250 million people, millions of them voters, in this country who have never spent a day afield. And they never will, because we can't reach them. Why not? Because 80% of teenagers watch over 4 hours of television a day. Because 95% of teenagers have not taken hunters education or gun safety courses. Because most of these kids have no one to take them hunting or fishing, since over half of their parents are divorced.
You may be like the old fellers, and argue, "Hell, it's more deer for me." This is where you're woefully wrong. The next time there's a firearms ordinance on your local ballot. The next time the state asks voters to pay $3 million for a bridge that connects a county road to the best fishing lake in the state. The next time voters are asked, "House Bill 363984, to abolish hunting within the limits of the county." How can outdoorsmen and women possibly succeed without recruiting new hunters and anglers? And how will your recruit more anglers, if the only fishing access you support is at least 2 hours away from the suburbs, near your "honey hole?"
There's an amazing bright spot in all of this. How? While public involvement in hunting and fishing is critically low, public support for hunting (70-85%) and fishing (85-95%) are at their highest level in my lifetime. This means that the conservation message has gotten through. What seemed like an impossible task a few decades ago - ensuring that hunters/anglers always act as conservationists, and convincing the public that we are conservationists - has actually worked. This remains an area where we need to be active though - the "green" education that most kids are receiving in their schools now doesn't actively oppose hunting and fishing - but it doesn't mention them either.
Another bright spot is the result of the equal rights and civil rights movements. Again, the old timers will cringe, but I think you're starting to see my logic. The absolute retardation of public statements like, when taking a woman on a hunt, "smart men are likely to make the trip as unpleasant as possible" are only going to help us push ourselves into cultural extinction. Women and minorities have rapidly embraced sports and pursuits from which they were excluded for decades or longer (depending on your opinion). More importantly, women and minorities (who, together, make up somewhere around 75% of our population..and rising) have been excluded from the outdoor culture. Intentionally for years, and more recently, out of a lack of initiative on the part of us - the white guys. Why the hell would we not bring these folks into the fold? Just a thought.
I don't ask any of you to take a new hunter or angler afield just because it feels good or because your favorite conservation organization asked you to do so. I implore you to take new folks afield because otherwise your grandchildren, if not your children, will see abrupt and unilateral closures of land to public access, including passive uses. It costs our government a lot of money to manage licenses, land, and wildlife. There are plenty of folks that would like to see wildlife habitats permanently closed to human beings. Don't think it can never happen. For the sake of our traditions and our love of the outdoors - please share these special places and special times with someone else.
I have a feeling Chris Orlet is going to give me ammunition for months! Thanks buddy!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Traveling the Bloody Potomac

Potomac River @ Mouth of the Monocacy River (Maryland). While many Marylanders were sympathetic to the South (and disruptive to the Union forces), Maryland was technically a Union state. During much of the Civil War, the Potomac River divided the "two Americas."

Union artillery positions at the Monocacy Aqueduct, erected after the second failed sabotage of the aqueduct by Confederate troops (Antietam Campaign of 1862)

Engineers Monument - Monocacy Aqueduct

Confederate Field Hospital, Purcellville Virginia

Site of the Battle of Loudon Heights - Mosby's Rangers vs. Cole's Maryland Union Cavalry (1864). The site was used by Stonewall Jackson in 1862 to firebomb the town of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Peppers to Jerk

The final concoction - Jamaican Jerk rub
It's truly slumber-time right now - the weather is generally cold, and like every year, I'm using the time from about Feb 1 to April 15 (most futile time of the year for fishing, hunting, surfing, and kayaking) to get my life in order, be a good husband, and tie up old projects that just won't die. Old projects like using my dried scotch bonnet peppers ('member those manure-raised organic beauties?) from 2008 in one of my favorite seasonings, Jamaican Jerk.
Jerk is great because, beyond being a wonderful seasoning, it evokes so many great memories from my life. From beachside blackened shrimp in Virginia to the Oistins Fish Fry in Barbados. Good, warm, happy times. Which makes this a perfect project for February.

Jerk's primary ingredients: scotch bonnet peppers, brown sugar, and allspice.
I used a common recipe from the Interwebs and changed it to fit my style a bit. It's posted below. While my skills pretty clearly dwarf those of your hosts at Hunt, Eat, Live! and Hunter, Angler, Garden, Cook, I cooked "professionally" at several restaurants from age 15 to 22, so I at least know my way around a kitchen.
Some notes: use care when handling habaneros and scotch bonnets. Do not use fresh peppers - dry them or lightly roast. Remove the white filament or placenta, and "most" of the seeds, even if you love spicy foods. The skin and a few leftover seeds will give you plenty of heat, especially after your Jerk has sat around and marinated for a few days. When the skins are dried, crush them however you like, but be aware that you will be creating pepper dust. If you don't believe me, try it. You'll see. Crush the skins in a well-ventilated area, let's just say it that way!

Pepper crushing from skins to flakes....there was no way I was going to use my coffee grinder for this.
Recipe: Swamp Thing's Jamaican Jerk (2 lbs - large batch!)
1.5 cups allspice (ground)
1.5 cups brown sugar (packed)
18 scotch bonnet peppers

8 ounces orange juice with pulp
12 garlic cloves
6 bunches scallions or 2 tbs onion powder (easier - green onions grind poorly)
3 tbs ground thyme
1.5 tbs white pepper
1 tbs sea salt
3 tsp cinnamon
1.5 tsp nutmeg
2 bay leaves

Mix it all together and go nuts. Do not over apply to your meats! This is not a "canning" mixture so it has about a 3 week lifespan in the fridge and a 1 year lifespan in the freezer.

When I catch my first rockfish of the year....you already know how it will be cooked!