Saturday, November 28, 2009

Adventures in Wild Game Prep - Goose Edition

Wild goose breast in a red wine & cherry marinade - ready for the smoker on Thanksgiving morning (2009)

I've been actively hunting geese since 2001 - the first year any harvest in the Atlantic flyway was allowed since the 1995 closure (a result of the poor management & extreme over-harvest that occured in the early 1990s). That was a short season - 30 days, with a 1-goose bag limit. I remember setting up what seemed like hundreds of goose shells (it was really only about 3 dozen) and thinking, "Wow, this is a lot of work for one goose." Well, fast forward 8 years, and throughout the flyway, we have a 2 (sometimes 3) goose bag limit and around 45 days to hunt them, and hunts now generally require silhouettes or full body decoys numbering at least 5 dozen. Geese no longer respond to goose shells (except by flaring and flying off in the opposite direction). So we've doubled our potential harvest, tripled our workload, and quadrupled the amount of space needed to store the gear. Brilliant!

So over the last 8 years, I've tried a variety of methods to preparing goose. Some have been a smashing success (crockpot barbeque), and others...not so much (breakfast sausage). Also during that period, the internet has exploded with recipes and concoctions to make these sometimes gamey birds more pallatable to hunters and non-hunters alike. Here's what I cobbled together - my most successful goose prep to date - Smoked Goose in Red Wine & Cherries (4 day recipe):

  • breasts of 2 geese
  • 2 lbs sweet cherries (fresh or thawed - pitless if you intend to eat the cherries)
  • Sea salt
  • White pepper
  • 1 bottle Dry Red Wine (Spanish, Australian, or Argentinian would do)
  • Enough apple or cherry wood chips to fuel your smoker for 3-4 hours

  1. Remove all shot from fresh goose breast. Stack breasts in container and submerge (slightly) with red wine
  2. Refrigerate immediately and leave for 2 days
  3. On day 3, add the cherries. Submerge/soak as many in the wine as possible
  4. On this same day, soak your smoker chips in water, wine, whiskey, or whatever you prefer. It is important that the chips you use are not overpowering - I'm specifically thinking of mesquite and hickory.
  5. On day 4 (cooking day), gently remove the breasts from the "marinade" and rub them thoroughly with sea salt and white pepper. This is important to round out the sweet taste of the wine and cherries
  6. Place the breasts on your smoker, or on a grill NOT OVER DIRECT HEAT. I've found that keeping the temperature between 250F and 350F is optimal to getting these suckers smoked in 3-4 hours.
  7. Heap the cherries on top of the breast filets.
  8. Periodically drip excess marinade on the cooking breasts until the meat begins to increase in temperature, at which point (for sanitation) you should keep the meat moist with water or some additional wine
  9. When the meat's internal temperature starts to creep above 140F, use your best judgment as to when to remove. Technically, the lean goose meat should be done at 160F.
  10. Slice julienne-style and serve immediately - the individual slices will lose their moisture quickly - this is something I'm still working on! The individual slices are quite attractive - bright red on the exterior (wine staining), and dark and lean on the interior.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal at the Great Falls of the Potomac

Top of Mather Gorge at the Great Falls of the Potomac - boundary between Virginia (left) and Maryland (right). Downstream is the coastal plain and in about 90 miles, the Chesapeake Bay. Upstream is the Piedmont, Appalachian Mountains, and Appalachian Plateau.
In Maryland, we have to create our own Sunday adventures in the fall months. Why, you ask? First of all, hunting on sundays is illegal, except for archery hunting of deer on select private properties in very rural areas. Second of all, Pro Football sucks. Well, at least the Ravens and the Redskins suck. So...let's go do something else.
We drove down about 60 miles to the Great Falls Tavern section of the C&O Canal Trail National Historic Park. I've written about the C&O Canal a few different times, like here and here, and probably some other places, but here's a background of this 185 mile long National Park along "The Bloody Potomac." The C&O Canal aka "The Grand Old Ditch" operated for almost 100 years from the 1830s to the 1920s. It covers 600 vertical feet of grade change over its length, which basically describes the necessity for the canal - George Washington thought it would be an ideal way to move extracted resources (coal, timber) out of the Ohio River Valley. When canal construction reached Cumberland, Maryland (a coal center), the upstart Baltimore & Ohio Railroad had already reached the town, rendering the Canal a little obsolete....and ending all plans to extend the Canal the final 180 miles to the Ohio River. As I wrote about in the above-linked blog entries, the Canal and its aqueducts were frequent targets of sabotage (from both sides) during the United States Civil War, depending on who controlled the Canal at that moment.

Boats were moved upstream through a series of flooded locks. Here is Lock 20, at the Great Falls Tavern. The "Canal Trail" is the trail on the left - when the canal was in operation, they called it the "Tow Path," used by the mule teams to tow the barges through the locks.
One of the largest access points, and most convenient to I-495 outside of Washington DC is the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center ($5/car access fee). If you don't care to see the Visitor Center or use the bathrooms, other public access points are nearby, and very visible. NPS has a great write-up on the history of the site, so it's just worth mentioning that it started as a housing for the lock-keeper, then the growing numbers of canal workers, and right before the Civil War - a lodging for Canal tourists.

Mrs. Swampy and Swamp Jr. - enjoying another warm autumn day. Swamp Jr. is 8 weeks old and is up to 13lbs and 24" long. Whoever his daddy is, must be a tall man (joking).

There are a lot of great things about the C&O Canal Trail - it's incredibly well-maintained, the scenery is beautiful all year long, and you can use it to your own limit. I mean, if you don't feel challenged after 1 mile, there are another 184 miles for you. Likewise, it's easy to handle with kids & babies because there is almost no vertical grade, and the trail has been compacted by 100+ years of mule teams. If you find yourself in Washington DC - take this detour, you'll be thrilled that you did.

Now, if you want to do some dumber stuff outside than old Swampy, you gots to try pretty hard. Here is today's winner. A for effort, F for scrambled brains...there's a 40' waterfall about 100' ahead of him....just around the bend.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Maryland Goose Opener 2009

View from the pit - geese eat fresh greens when it's warm outside
Opening day was not as big of a bust as predicted, but it was a challenging day to hunt. I hunted geese in a field of green barley at the duck club I joined near "Goose Ground Zero", just northwest of Chestertown, Maryland. The club members had a big feast the night before, which I missed, and I arrived at the farm around 12:45am. Now, the farm has three residences: The Big House (off limits to club members), the Tenant House (club members by invitation), and The Lodge (an old beach house with power, heat, but no running water). After last week's hybrid hurricane / nor'easter, the fields, forests, and marshes were all sopping wet. The sandy spit access to The Lodge was probably underwater totally - access only by boat. I parked up at the barns....nobody around..... and walked over to the Tenant House.....saw the sign for "bunk assignments," and there was my name, and "Lodge." I couldn't get a cell signal, and I knew better than to try to drive my new truck on an underwater sandbar, so I spent the night in my new truck for the first time! It was a little chilly (39F / 4C) to sleep in the bed, so I kicked it in the Crew Cab. Let me just say that sleeping in the 2010 Tacoma far surpasses sleeping in the 1996 Tacoma!!! I felt totally fine, except for my left foot, which I guess I had crammed underneath the brake pedal for about 2 hours of sleep time. Ow.
I set my alarm for 4:45am (shooting light was roughly 6:30am), and I knew that my comrades would have to show up at the barns to pick up decoys for the morning hunt. Right on cue, ATV's started arriving up from the Lodge around 5:10am, and the Tenant House emptied out.
Due to the warm weather (predicted weather was clear, windless, and 55F), everyone wanted to hunt out on the water, since the geese would be unlikely to be aggressively feeding in the fields. I didn't really want to deal with all that drama, so myself and two other guys decided to hunt in a concrete pit in the farthest field from the river.

First retrieve of the season!

We were set up and just BS'ing when legal shooting time passed. This moment, in this part of the world (shooting light on the opening day, which is always a saturday), every year, is usually a good replication of the invasion of Normandy. However, only a few volleys were fired, and quite a distance from where we were. Throughout the whole area, shooting was very light all morning. I was politely informed by my 2 new hunting pals that neither one of them can call geese. Anyone who knows me, and can call geese themselves, also know that I cannot call geese. However, I had both of my goose calls, so I called the geese. In fact, I did all the calling, and only shot one round all morning, at a goose going away (it died of fright).

Wrap it up!
I am still having a lot of trouble with the short reed goose call (I am currently using a Primos Honky Tonk but I'm switching to either an RNT Goozilla or a Foiles Meat Grinder, both of which sell for under $50 - $150 goose calls for me. In the meantime, I had to go with what I know, which these days is a Ward Game Calls Persimmon Goose Flute. It has a very round sound which was "good enough" for opening day, but will either need to be improved (my skill) or upgraded (the call) by the time late season starts, roughly December 15th.
We ended up harvesting 3 birds of a possible 6 bird limit, and we didn't feel bad about it. Had my calling been better, or the other guys' shooting been better, we probably would have left with 5. Maybe next time! It was really neat to call instead of shoot. A very different kind of stress. I enjoyed it, and wonder if I'll get the opportunity to call for other folks again.
Waterfowl season is definitely not off to a "bang," but with good company in the goose pit, and some birds on the smoker for Thanksgiving, it's all good.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Opening Day is Nigh!

Geese over the blind, January 2009
Well, tomorrow marks the opening day of Maryland's 2009-2010 goose season. I am reasonably well-prepared and somewhat relaxed, although I'll be spending tonight and tomorrow at a hunting club I only joined recently, with a dozen folks I hardly know. Curious to see how the hunting arrangements, workload, and conversations will go. I have a feeling we may be successful - the weather is dreadfully warm, but the club has pits over green barley as well as blinds on the water. Regardless, I'm very excited and I hope I shoot well, if given the opportunity.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Chesapeake Landforms - Sandy River Bluffs

American Holly
One of the interesting parts of my job these days is to oversee projects associated with the restoration & long-term stabilization of tidal shorelines in the Chesapeake Bay. One of the landforms on which this type of conservation work is frequently done is at the base of sandy river bluffs on small tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. Several processes are occuring that are eroding tidal wetlands at the base of these bluffs, including sea level rise, freeze/thaw erosion, wave action from power boats, unattenuated wind wave action resulting from a lack of bay grasses (seaweed), and extensive runoff and erosion from the top of the sandy bluffs themselves. Whooo...that's a lot of stuff....and we'll tackle it sometime later!
Typical eroding sandy bluff on the South River in Central Maryland
But these bluffs, and their constant erosion and movement, have a really interesting history to themselves, as well as a very important ecological role to play in what has become a highly developed part of the earth.

Based of a sandy bluff - the beach sand is eroded off of the slope. These beach habitats are very important for Diamondback Terrapins and Horseshoe Crabs.
I wanted to tell the story of these unique landforms, but since I am not a geologist, I thought it might be best to contact some geologists. I was able to get in touch with Bob Conkwright and Dr. Jim Reger, both from the Maryland Geological Survey, and ask them a bit about their landforms. Not surprisingly, I got a taste of my own medicine - way more information than I was expecting - which is what folks get when they ask me, "What's wrong with my plant?" (which coincidentally, is the name of a great book).
According to Bob, most of the sandy river bluffs in the Central Chesapeake Bay tributaries are (geologically) recent features, ranging from 3.5 million to 65 million years of age. In the coastal plain (where the rivers are generally affected by the tides), there is no bedrock within the top 100 or more feet below the surface. So where did all of this sand come from? And keep in mind that the Chesapeake Bay, which cuts rivers and creeks through these sandy cliffs, is largely a product of natural global warming & sea level rise over only the last 10,000 to 12,000 years.
Bob Conkwright calls these sands "lowland deposits," which means that surface water brought the sand to its approximate current location in horizontal layers, causing extensive shelves. International Geological Congress Field Trip Guide T211 (Elk Neck, MD) shows that some of the sources for the deposits of this age were "upland gravels" and "bay and river fill." We can presume that "upland gravels" were washed down from the piedmont and mountains as eroded pieces of bedrock, while "bay and river fill" are layers of sediment laid down during long term (thousands of years) or short term (perhaps just a few hours) flood events.
In fact, a trip up just seaward (east) along the Fall Line boundary from Georgia to Delaware, between the piedmont and coastal plain geologic provinces will show us just that - significant efforts at sand and gravel's really just sand and gravel digging, since the desired materials are at or near the surface, not buried like a true "mine."
One thing I teach my physical geography class is that glacial rock deposition occurs at the retreat of a glacier - not during its construction. According to The Geological History of the Chesapeake Bay (Hobbs, 2003), this is also true for sandy river bluffs (hence, the "bay and river fill"). As the higher sea levels began to recede (oncoming ice ages and global cooling periods), significant layers of sand, silt, and clay were left behind. At the same time, piedmont rivers began to adapt to this lowering sea level, and with gravity, carved directly into the sand, forming the series of interspersed creeks and cliffs that we see today in the central Chesapeake Bay region.
Sandy river bluffs are important areas today for an interesting set of reasons. Due to their instability and steep slopes (and resulting environmental & insurance regulations), many of these bluffs can only be partially developed for real estate purposes. Often, the steepest area is the eroding cliff closest to the waterfront. In effect, a band of wildlife habitat occurs in an area (waterfront) that is normally heavily impacted by human activities and development. These areas are generally left alone for wildlife - and their heritage as rich marine sediments - though sandy - provide some great native plants to support wildlife. These plants are very hardy and withstand one of nature's common ironies - near desert conditions just a few feet away from flowing fresh water.
Let's take a look at some of these plants, in addition to the American Holly at the top of the post.

Virginia Pine - the seeds from its cones are eaten by doves, quail, turkey, and other birds. Some songbird species prefer dried needles for their nests.

Pokeberry is a pesky "weed" whose berries are eaten by birds as soon as they are ripe

Blackhaw Viburnum - berries are treasured by small mammals and birds during the winter months.

The acorns of the Post Oak help fatten up wildlife for the cold winter months. Post Oak is susceptible to the Chestnut Blight Fungus, responsible for eliminating the American Chestnut from the forests of eastern North America.

The leaves of the Mountain Laurel are poisonous to deer and other hooved animals (a very specific evolutionary adaptation!), but the high-protein berries are important food for wildlife in the winter.

Greenbriar is one of many thorny woody vines that inhabit sandy river bluffs. Greenbriar also produces a very high protein berry that is nutritious for songbirds.

The Shad Bush mainly reproduces mainly by cloning, but also provide high quality food for songbirds. The plant gets its name from the time of year that it blooms, which roughly coincides with the time of spring that shad migrate from salt water to fresh water rivers to spawn.

Red-Cedar (a juniper) is a shrub used for living fences, wildlife plantings, and even furniture. The needles and berries of the plant are highly edible to a very wide variety of wildlife species, from deer to songbirds. The berries maintain their nutritional quality throughout the winter months, providing a great emergency source of food for late winter birds.

Over 60 species of songbirds eat Poison Ivy's waxy white berries, which are extremely protein-rich and available through the first half of the winter. In fact, this is why poison ivy mysteriously shows up in your garden - having passed through the digestive tract of a songbird. Unfortunately for humans, we now know that Poison Ivy thrives in air pollution and high CO2 environments, and in fact, produces even more poison than usual.

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