Friday, July 31, 2009

New Office Decisions

Map of the Ches. and Del. Bays - 1840 - sweet!
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Okay, so under the heading of "life ain't so bad," I have started my new job and I'm also working pretty hard to get ready for the birth of our little boy. That has left me with very little time to screw around outdoors (although I spent the third day of my new job seine-netting fish in the marsh all day, which was pretty sweet). I've moved to a small non-profit that focuses on local-scale (in the Chesapeake Bay) wildlife habitat restoration - particularly tidal shorelines, fish habitat, wetlands, and oyster reefs. Now that I am "all growed up" and have a manager-type position, I have a manager-type office - currently barren of anything personal (yet). AND, I will be sitting in this office 2 to 4 days a week, unlike my previous "field biologist" jobs.
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So I wanted to solicit your opinion. These are some posters I've picked out for the office walls. Most are regular poster-size, so I'll probably get two or three. Tell me which one you think are most likely to "tell a personal story," while not making my coworkers (or our donors) think, "That's weird - why would you hang THAT on the wall?" Thanks for your input!


Map of Virginia Beach, 1910


Canvasback Decoys (I will have several sitting on my bookshelf)


Wave/surfer, NC Outer Banks



Autographed Jobes Decoy Poster - 2 of my display decoys are Jobes blocks




Baja Norte wave & surfer





World's Most Dangerous Sharks - cool poster but perhaps not work appropriate?







Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Tale of Two Wines

2008 Apple Wine, Uncorked July 2009
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I have been making my own wines intermittently for about 7 years. I have learned a whole lot about fermentation, brewing, and sanitation, and as you'll read here, apparently I have further yet to go. One obvious thing that's tough about producing your own food, wine, beer, tobacco...etc.. is that you have to try to "get it right" under circumstances that are never the same - a nearly impossible task unless you are an industrial - size producer (which would defeat the purpose of this exercise, wouldn't it?). Less obvious is the fact that you've got to deal with your own human expectations - a scale that rarely slides in the "artist's" or "producer's" favor.
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And "art" it is. To accomplish these feats at a small scale require a very human touch, and often a lot of attention. And sometimes you just have to admit, "The commercial guys do it better." So let's take a look at the wines I made in 2008, which I just bottled today after 15 months of dark, dry storage.
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The apple wine (above) is a delicious wine, although a little bit of disappointment - a great example of not meeting my own unrealistic expectations. I would give it a 3/5. The wine, which was made from organic apple juice, organic cane sugar, and Champagne yeast, is delightfully plain and light, which is what an apple wine should be. There is a full apple taste that carries throughout, and very light tannins and no bitterness. There's also a pretty detectable taste of cinammon or allspice - which I cannot explain, since those spices were not added to the wine. It's pretty enjoyable and we'll see if the taste matures any with some additional aging in the bottles.
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So why was I disappointed? It's simple - the last time I made apple wine, it was better (likely a 4/5). The taste was a lot more complex, and the wine was just as sweet. As you'll read, last time I used fresh cider instead of apple juice. That may account for the difference.
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What will I do differently next time? I will consider adding some spice (or oak barrel chips) to the wine to bulk up the natural flavors and add some complexity. I will also use fresh cider (which I used to make my favorite batch of apple wine so far), instead of apple juice. I'll actually go to an orchard and buy some fresh-pressed cider. Even if I have to freeze it, it should give me a much more complex taste than the organic apple juice I used this time.



2008 Elderberry-Blackberry Wine - Uncorked July 2009
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You may have previously read about my trials and tribulations with elderberries here. Or here. You may even remember when I posted about making this elderberry wine, here.
I love elderberries - they are a great native plant, and they provide lots of delicious berries for the songbirds. This year (2009) was an awful year for production - due to our heavy spring rains, many of the stems fell over and broke in half, never blooming.
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In spring, 2008 I pulled out 2007's elderberry crop, which had been frozen over the winter. I started calculating how much fruit I would need to make wine, and clearly, I did not have enough. What I did have were 2007's blackberries from our yard, which together with the elderberries, "almost" gave me enough fruit to make 2 gallons of wine. The previous sentences describe my first several mistakes....but I'll continue. I added some champagne yeast and a whole ton of organic sugar (I was warned that elderberries are quite sour and require lots of sugar), and let 'er rip. I uncorked it today and bottled it, finding very little finings or other residue in the bottom. This is very unusual for a fruit wine.
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Upon first taste, this wine is not nearly as good as the apple wine. I would give it a 2/5. The berry flavor is quite underwhelming, and the tannins are very strong (probably from micro-sized pieces of fruit skin in the wine). Strangely (or not), the wine is not very sweet. I could tell you (as I will probably tell people) that I deliberately undersweetened the wine to make it more like a dinner wine, and less like a dessert wine, but then I would be lying. I will most likely be serving this wine to people who are already intoxicated and do not have the sense to decline.
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What will I do differently next time? Oh boy. First, I don't think I will use raw fruit again. The fruit I collected from our yard, while of decent quality, was probably pretty sour from the start. I will either buy a juicer - a $200 investment, or just buy the commercial, super sweet and well-filtered fruit juices for wine making. Why? At least then, I will know precisely what issues I'm dealing with, in regards to bitterness, tannins, etc - prior to fermentation. It was such hard work boiling and separating skins from wine must - and there was absolutely no benefit from it, in this case.
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Second, I will make sure I have enough fruit for the wine recipe. I used about 15% less and the results were pretty predictable. I thought the wine's flavor would "fill in" and boy, was I wrong. It *almost* tastes watered down. In fact, if it weren't for the strong tannins, it would be watered down.
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Third, I will not be afraid of adding too much sugar. I added double the sugar to this recipe, and the yeast tore through it really quickly (particularly since there wasn't enough fruit juice to sustain the yeast colony).
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Well, there you have it. I am planning a strawberry wine for drinking next summer, and who else knows what I'll think of?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Cicada Killer, Qu'est Que C'est?

Cicada Killer paralyzes a Cicada before dragging it into its burrow (under a sidewalk)
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With the continuous, wide-spread alarm (but little action) over the peril of bees and other pollinators, there's another group of insects who are doing just fine - predatory wasps and hornets. One such guy, our largest wasp, has been wreaking havoc all over Maryland this summer. She's the Eastern Cicada Killer (Specius speciosus), she's 2" long, and she does not enjoy long walks on the beach, unless she is carrying a paralyzed (but very alive) cicada. This year's cicadas are all Dogday Cicadas (Tibicen canicularis), and let me tell you, they are taking a beating! In case you haven't seen either species alive - both of these insects are over 2" long.


Uh oh, the cicada won't fit!
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The cicada killer is a solitary nester, but ideal nesting conditions may create a seeming "colony" of these giant wasps (which do sting!). Like many evolved predator-prey relationships, the Cicada Killer mates at the same time of the summer when Cicada nymphs are transforming into flying adults. The female Cicada Killer does all the hunting. When a cicada is located, the wasp stings it to paralyze it, and then carries it (flying) back to its nest. The cicada is never killed, but instead is kept as a living host for the eggs of the Cicada Killer. The Cicada Killer places male and female eggs at different locations along the cicada's body (favoring female eggs). The eggs hatch and eat away at the living Cicada, which is periodically paralyzed by additional stings from the adult female Cicada Killer.


There it goes! Yum!
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Ironically enough, Cicada Killers are also the hosts to a number of species of parasitic flies, who lay eggs on the wasp's body and wait for the maggots to tear into the Cicada Killer.
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I looked at a couple of websites for instructions on "managing" Cicada Killers (since they are generally considered a beneficial species), and found some great tips on (generally) providing habitat for ground-nesting bees and wasps, particularly by leaving slopes of sandy soil exposed. Of course, this would also include yellowjackets....but we'll leave all of that for another post.

Post-script: that post can be found here.


Friday, July 10, 2009

You're Only Allowed to View the Water from a Safe Distance, and it's a $6 Fee

Beverly-Triton Beach Park - with access hours from 9am - 4pm by caretaker-issued daily permit only, and no vehicles, boats, kayaks, mountain bikes, or ATVs allowed....obviously a great expenditure of taxpayer dollars


Quiet Waters Park in Annapolis, Maryland - looks like a great place to kayak & fish, no? Unfortunately, paddling is only allowed at the park if you rent their boats. A bargain at $40/day + $6 per car.
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Alright, so it's The Intern's last day at work so I figured we would do a little ultralight kayak fishing before work. The previous evening, we settled on a great looking area in Anne Arundel County (an abandoned sand pit, now lake, at Beverly-Triton Beach Park). Note the word "Park." Luckily, The Intern also looked up the park web page, and noticed that it said,
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"Access by Permit Only." Now.....wait a second. I've heard of access fees, and access hours, but if it's a COUNTY PARK, why, exactly would you need an access permit? And don't say, "well it's probably just for the community," because #1 there is no community there, and #2, if it's a county facility, it's run by the parks and rec department, which routinely utilize matching state and Federal funds for operations, facilities, and maintenance...making it (once again), a public facility. Here's a great (old) example of Federal matching funds for park improvement.
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Just for fun, I called the Parks & Rec department to inquire about getting a permit. They referred me to the part-time caretaker, who I called. He told me ALL ABOUT the access that's available at Beverly-Triton Park (keep in mind, it's a giant forest, with a road running through it, a beach, and a big pond). Yeah, you see, there's NO BOATING ALLOWED. And NO VEHICLES ALLOWED (down the access road - guess you can hoof it from here!). And if you would like to go fishing, you can meet the caretaker between 9AM and 4PM for a "1 day permit." "Shoreline fishing only," the man says. Now, let's see. Meet the man at 9AM. Get my permit by 9:15, and walk the roadway...that means I might "possibly" have a fishing line in the water (again - shoreline fishing only) by 9:45 am? And then pack up and walk back down the 3 mile access road before 4pm when the caretaker locks the place up? Oh yeah, that's some QUALITY public park experience there! Fishing from 10AM to 3PM, from the shoreline. LOL. The taxpayers are getting a real deal on that one!
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So, moving onward, we decided to paddle at the park pictured above, the favorite park of upper crust Annapolitans, Quiet Waters Park. The site is surrounded on 3 sides by shallow brackish water, including a small embayment that I believed might hold some nice fish. Kayak rentals at the park ($40 per day) are also advertised, so I presumed that adequate waterfront access existed (and again, look at that map above). Now, Quiet Waters Park does require a $6 per car donation, but with two of us in the truck, I figured, what the heck, why not (and yes, I'm choosing to "let go" the argument that $6 per car makes it a private park, not a public park).
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So we're driving down through the park, scanning the signs for "boat ramp," "cartop launch," "canoe launch," or anything similar. We found absolutely nothing, and in addition, found out that the park "road" is closed off at least 300 yards from every single shoreline in the place. Then we figured, "Hey, we'll just use the kayak rental dock." We parked and then looked into the woods - easily a 500' trek on a gravel trail, just to the rental facility. We were beside ourselves - how can this park be surrounded by water, with NO water access?
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We inspected the park map a little closer, and THEN came the kicker:
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Boats may not dock on the park shoreline, overlook or at the boating concession dock.
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Wow. So not only is it difficult to launch (anything but a rental boat) from the shoreline, but the County has actually made it illegal to launch or land from their shoreline - except at the rental dock - which can't be used by a non-rental boat. At some point you have to wonder - are they trying to keep the public safe by prohibiting us from using our own kayaks and canoes? Or are they just trying to supplement their vendor's boat rental business?
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So I have to wonder - is the Anne Arundel County Parks Dept basically just a shell for developers to offload unprofitable land? The County can then call it a park, without providing any kind of reasonable access for the activities that people like to pursue. Why would you have a public park with a 30 acre lake, and allow no canoes? Why would you have a public park with 5+ miles of pristine shoreline, that can only be explored if one rents a kayak for $40 a day?
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If anybody has an explanation to this....hit me!
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I have no problems with taxpayer-funded land acquisition - heck, I fully support it, and I enjoy living in a state where our tax dollars fund so much land protection. But if YOU DON'T WANT PEOPLE TO ACCESS THE PUBLIC LAND, PLEASE DON'T CALL IT A PARK! Call it a preserve, a refuge, anything but a park. Parks are managed primarily to provide human access. Beverly-Triton Beach Park is managed to EXCLUDE human access, while Quiet Waters Park is...well...I can't make any sense out of having that much public waterfront and no access for kayakers (I mean, experienced kayakers who are less likely to drown than rental-boaters). So I don't know what their "management plan" is....certainly it's a doozie.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Jumping Head First

Some bad ideas make themselves apparent quite quickly. Others take time. And others are just good ideas in disguise. This tattoo does not fall into that category.
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It has been an insane few weeks. MAN. On top of the whole "baby issue" (t minus 9 weeks), two deaths in the family in May and June, heavy layoffs at work (10% overall, 20% in our office), I was feeling like I didn't quite have enough going on in my life.
Lo and behold, my friend Mike sends me a a job advertisement for "Senior Manager - Wetland Restoration" at a local non-profit organization. I have been restoring wetlands as a profession for about 12 years now. So I take a gander at the job description...hmmm...sounds like what I already do, but with a lot more support staff.....and then I check the salary range - the low end was just below my current salary.....but the upper end was around 30% higher than my current salary. I jumped. Head first. And I got the job. And jumped again.
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Long story short, here I am, on the day I have resigned from my dream job (dream job in theory, that is), working as a wetland restoration biologist for Ducks Unlimited, and I feel a little stunned. I love DU, and I don't regret - at all - the literal blood, sweat, and tears I put into working for them over the last several years. In fact, I look forward to continuing to support them financially. I really like my boss - he and I both came up through the trenches in private construction consulting/contracting, and I believe he's working his hardest, given limited options from his own supervisors (and theirs, and so on). I love the people I work with, and I love the projects I'm working on.
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So, obviously, it sounds like leaving this job is a huge mistake. Maybe so. But... I am a strong believer in the theory that "opportunity never knocks at a convenient time." I have been waiting for an opportunity to move into "real" management for about 4 years. And although I left the corporate world quite willingly, I am currently earning (salary) what I earned in 2003 (salary+overtime). The opportunity came to add some responsibility, stay in the non-profit world, and also do right by my family (more time off and a little more pay).
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Wow, when you say it like that, it doesn't sound so crazy after all.