Tuesday, May 25, 2010

No Alligators in Virginia. Zero. None.

Mature American Alligator in Dismal Swamp NWR, less than 20 miles south of the NC-VA border (photo from Patrick Balester - author of a new novel about the Dismal Swamp)
(edit to readers (June 2010): I have followed up on this post with a more detailed habitat analysis of border wetlands and waterways...just click here to see!)
New update (August  2011) - Where, exactly, will gators post up (and not be removed) in Virginia? 
Click here to find out!

I have a great fascination with the American Alligator. I grew up in near-tropical southeastern Virginia, and during the summers of 100% humidity and 100+ degree temperatures, trust me, it seemed like a great place for alligators to live. But even as a teenager, it seemed like the more books I consulted and the more people I talked to, the greater the consensus was that alligators do not live in Virginia. Never have. Never will. Out of curiosity only, I've spent 15 years poking and prodding to find out why not - after all, the Alligator River (which is full of wild, reproducing alligators) is just a few dozen miles from the Virginia border. And it's connected to Virginia via a system of deep, secluded canals and swamps. So why not, then?

Large mature American Alligator in Alligator River NWR, less than 50 miles south of the NC-VA border. 
Photo: Alligator River NWR Blog
In the 1980s and 1990s, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and US Geological Survey decided to get a better handle on site-specific needs of different animal species by creating a library of Habitat Suitability Indices (HSI). These models were made to show whether an actual area within a farm, state park, refuge, etc would be a suitable habitat for an individual species. Based on a mix of quantitative and qualitative data, the HSIs (most commonly developed for game species or endangered species) frequently over- and under-shot the ability of wildlife to survive in adverse conditions, but generally provided good "frame of reference" - i.e. - very good, very bad, or OK/marginal habitat. Nothing wrong with that.
So the American Alligator, a federally threatened species, has its own HSI, which was developed in 1987. It's a pretty good one - stating up front that alligators only live as far north as North Carolina. Their source (cited, even)?......a field guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians published in 1958. Wow, not so scientific. In addition, it also states that the model only applies to the marshes of Louisiana and Texas. Even though the document is simply titled, "HSI Models: American Alligator." There is no HSI for the Atlantic coastal plain "sub-population" of alligators.
Hmm. So this is why biologists still refuse to believe that wild alligators can move across the Virginia -North Carolina line - a 1958 field guide and a habitat model for gators living in South Texas. The National Parks Conservation Association says that alligators are found as far north as Georgia (just Georgia?). The USFWS Endangered Species Act website shows the gator's range as mysteriously extending exactly to the NC-VA border and not one inch further. I found a poster on the internet who stated boldly that no alligators can survive north of Montgomery, Alabama! But more importantly, here's the dubious map of record, based on a 1958 field guide:

The current (academically accepted) range of the American Alligator.
So if the American Alligator can possibly survive north of the VA-NC border, then why isn't it already there?

Railroads constructed for timber harvest in the Dismal Swamp, late 1800s

Two factors - alligator hunting (for skins) and swamp timber harvesting (resulting in increased swamp access and even more gator hunting) - decimated the American Alligator population in the late 1800s and early 1900s, notably the 1920s-1940s. In 1967, USFWS listed them as federally Endangered, and following 20 years of full protection, they were re-classified as Threatened in 1987. The primary remaining threat to alligators is the loss of marsh habitat to real estate development. However, healthy, reproducing populations are documented as far north as northern North Carolina, within 20 miles of the Virginia border.

Dismal Swamp, current condition
So we can agree that:
  • alligators (wild, not abandoned pets) are living within 20 miles of the VA-NC border.
  • alligators are reproducing in at least two distinct areas within 70 miles of the border.
  • Mature alligators are living (perhaps reproducing) within the Dismal Swamp NWR, which crosses the border.
So, have any truly wild alligators been spotted in Virginia recently? And if so, what is their deal? How did they get there?
My best synopsis of recent reports (2005-2009) of Alligator sightings north of the border. Many are clearly released pets. A few others (mature individuals) seemed less likely to be so. Do you like the cartoon gator? It's as scientific as a 1958 field guide!

Alligators (likely wild) have been spotted recently in the Back Bay area of Virginia Beach, the Virginia portion of Dismal Swamp NWR, and the Dismal Swamp Canal near the VA-NC border. Many other gators, likely abandoned pets, have been captured to the north and west, where they have survived winters - multiple winters, in some cases - and are feasting on turtles, fish, and small mammals. Those animals all happen to be alligators' favorite foods, and they occur "aplenty" in Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland stormwater ponds and reservoirs.
From talking to local birdwatchers and hunters, my best guess is that alligators, perhaps young males, are moving north into Virginia through the Dismal Swamp Canal and the Intracoastal Waterway. I've written before on the Dismal Swamp Canal (second half of this post), as has my brother the Tugboatdude, in a blog ironically titled "Dismal Swamp Canal." And here. And of course, I can't find the post where he's holding a big but tattered swamp bass. Tough luck, buddy.
Historically, the winters in southern Virginia may have been a limiting factor on the hibernation of alligators - meaning that any gators that chose to hibernate in Virginia may have frozen to death, or not successfully reproduced the following summer. The North Carolina towns nearest the border have an average January temperature of 28 - 33 degrees farenheit, while the Virginia towns near the border have an average January temperature of 26.5 - 32.6 degrees farenheit. Given seasonal variability and our changing climate, this difference does not seem significant. I was pretty surprised by how close the numbers are.
So where and when in Virginia should we expect to start seeing consistent year-to-year alligator activity? That'll have to wait for Part II.
Thanks for reading!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

More Fishing the High Barometer...and Pressing My Luck

Nuphar (yellow pond lily) getting a little fed up with the shallow water
Got a chance to take a few "hiking" breaks during my travels in southern Maryland and tried to beat the odds again - after several days of rain, most rivers are flowing muddy - really muddy - and I thought, "What if I can find some spots, using my new "fish around the rain" techniques that will allow to target fish anyway.
One stop was at a semi-public park along the Patuxent River corridor that features catch-and-release fishing in restored gravel pits - no runoff from adjacent sites. I call it "semi public" because you 1) need to know it exists; 2) need to find it - no map to it anywhere; 3) have to get through the locked gate system.....or walk in from the road, which is a very long haul. All you have to do is call two separate government agencies in two different counties, confirm to them that you've spoken to the other agency, and one of them will give you the code to the lock. Ahhh, serving the public.
The ponds (picture above and below) are mainly groundwater-driven, and the water was clear. However, it was a bit shallow and there was about 40% surface cover (aquatic grasses, duck weed), 100% bottom cover (branches, twigs, roots, water lily stems), and about 50% cover in the water column (aquatic grasses). Add "lazy fat fish" to the equation (fed by several days of rain-induced prey drop-ins), and it was really, really challenging. However, after about 20 minutes of being frustrated and quickly moving from spot to spot, I found this:

Much less structure up in the shady guts of these ponds

There were dozens of fish in this little area, barely sticking their heads out of the grasses. They were so lazy that they wouldn't chase weighted lures down or across the bottom, so lazy that they wouldn't hit surface lures, but I threw a few weightless/suspending "presentations" (lol) at them that proved pretty effective. I had used up my "hiking" time so had to cut the effort short - but now I know what types of areas to target the next time I visit this spot.

CCC Pond built on the headwaters of Zekiah Swamp

That same day, I was able to stop into one of our state forests, which has protected a lot of the headwater acreage of Zekiah Swamp. Zekiah Swamp is one of the largest and most intact freshwater wetland systems in Maryland, the largest intact forested wetland system in Maryland, and one of Maryland's 9 scenic rivers. Although its "scenic" nature is not navigable by even the smallest kayak.

For a few years, I've tried finding some high quality fishing through this corridor, but because of the area's natural state (flooded swamps instead of deep creeks and streams), I've largely failed. The pond in the picture above is a great, shining example of that failure. However, I keep looking, and hopefully I'll find that perfect spot in the swamp one day!

And as for my fishing on the rising barometer - perhaps I'll limit it to the aftermath of SMALL rain events. If nothing else, it was great to get outside and enjoy the smell of marsh mud baking in the sun....another summer will soon be upon us.

Zekiah Swamp Canal - hand dug by CCC workers getting paid $1 per day

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Gardening with Bt - When does "Organic" become "Genetically Modified?"

I'm sure Bonide won't mind the free advertising
Most of you who farm or garden now know about Bt - Bacillus thuringiensis. Bt is a bacterium applied as active spores to areas with active caterpillars (to kill them). Like E. coli in mammals, Bt is a naturally occuring bacteria in caterpillars that can be highly toxic if introduced improperly (namely, by feeding).
And in the face of Malathions, Atrazines, and many other conventional pesticides in which our produce is soaked every year, obviously this seems like a great option for small farms and gardens with an infestation of cutworms, loopers, and the like. You simply spray (or powder spread) the spores on and around your plants on a moist, cool day. They grow, reproduce, and look forward to getting back into the gut of a caterpillar. Again, no chemicals are involved. To me, this is an amazing development in pest control - 1) the species already occurs in nature, and 2) no extra chemicals are needed to activate or spread it. Bt is so safe for people that it can be applied up to the day of harvest! How cool is that?
Here's where it gets interesting. Scientists have figured out a way to splice the toxin from Bt into the genes of commercial crop plants. Corn and cotton come to mind. Did you see how I just did that - we were talking about an amazing, safe, organic pest control and now we're talking about genetically modified crops! Hooray! I'm going to sidestep the "GMo" debate entirely here and just talk about what that means.
First, it's an example of how organic pest control CAN be more efficient that conventional control. If that wasn't the case, they'd be trying to splice the active ingredient of Atrazine into corn DNA. This is not insignificant. Organic was proven to be better. Hallelujah! Second, it really tests our mettle, ethics, and "soundbite philosophies" as conservation-minded folks. If Bt is a great thing to go ON the corn, why is Bt a bad thing to go IN the corn? Of course, I just reduced a very complex debate into sophomoric terms, but bear with me.
Organic solutions to our modern day problems are increasing and improving in efficiency every day. The most successful of these solutions will be picked up (and inevitably bastardized) by those who stand to make the most profit out of this efficiency. In some ways, that's what the founders of the American environmental movement dreamed of 40, 50, even 100 years ago.
If genetically modified corn with Bt toxins is as bad as an idea as it sounds, how will conservationists and environmentalists tell that story to the public, who just hear "blah blah blah Bt organic corn blah blah blah?"
And for it's worth, I am using Bt this year (Dipel wettable powder) because the cutworms are already hammering my pepper plants, and I hate to use conventional pesticides on anything other than an extreme infestation (facing total crop loss).

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Back At It - First Fishing Day of 2010

Largemouth Bass - Northeastern Maryland, May 2010
So between the weather, garden set-up, parenthood, and our various goings-on, it's been hard to find time to get afield over the last 3 weeks (April 15 is a fairly symbolic "spring date" in the Mid-Atlantic because turkey, trout, and striped bass all come into season around that date).
So I started putting time aside for myself, on my daily calendar (even the weekends) to get afield, whether before work, after dinner, or whatever. I got out a few days ago, just for 90 minutes, to try out my new plan. It went perfectly. It was one of those events that reaffirms that maybe there is some order in the world.
Easy big fella - it's back to the river for you!
I showed up at a "semi-public" access point near the Delaware/Maryland border, and got the access I needed. The rivers here are still quite fresh in May and early June, and many areas that will soon hold spot, croaker, and blue crabs are currently filled with largemouth bass and bluegills. I had been doing some reading about fishing tactics for rainy days, and tried to apply what I'd learned. Apparently it worked - the last picture in this post shows the result of my first cast, which was a presentation of a horribly ugly gold and fluorescent orange lure (two colors I never use). The big winner for the day, however, was a Bass Pro Shop ("XTS") 1.5" Speed Minnow (a near copy of the Yo-Zuri Pin Minnow) in - get this - black, silver, and blue. I used a similar one (in chartreuse and silver - my colors!) last summer with great success on large sunfish, as well as bass in the 10" - 14" range. The lure floats, twitches, and rattles, what else can I say!
I caught a number of very large sunfish like this bluegill - they look like some kind of dinosaur!

This bluegill - featuring some unusual coloration - was also pretty gigantic
Overall, I caught 8 largemouth bass (2 legal) and about 14 panfish (many over a half-pound) in about 90 minutes. It was great to get on with my day and reflect on some really fun fishing - and know that with a little more free time and a cooler, there would have been bluegill nuggets for everyone! The issue of the site's dubious "public access" (one of my occasional ranting topics) will have to wait for awhile. The last time you may have seen that diatribe quickly evaporate may have been on Tugboatdude's blog last year, when he struck out on an overfished "free" public lake, and then had some great fishing the same day at a nearby "public" site that requires a $10 access fee and $12/hour jonboat rentals.
Nope. I enjoyed my outing too much to be swayed into the whole "is it a public resource or not?" debate. How about this, instead: I'll just keep thinking about this really fun 90 minutes of fishing....and look forward to the next really fun 90 minutes of fishing?

My first cast of 2010, fish of 2010, and bass of 2010. Lucky strike!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Greenware - C'Mon, Son!

Picture of a new 2009 Greenware cup (left) and a "100% compostable" 2008 Greenware cup after 13 months in my commercial-size composter. Still looks like plastic to me. Note that the new cup does not claim to be compostable OR sustainable......just "eco-friendly."
I've heard environmentalists cry and whine about "greenwashing" for a few years now, and their claims all seemed kind of tenuous. Until I confirmed it for myself. Take for example, the company Greenware. The company has done some amazing business by making drink cups (and I assume other products) out of corn oil or some distillate thereof. I purchased a tasty beer at an outdoor event in June, 2008 and it came in one of these cups - the first I had ever seen. It said "100% compostable" on it! I was so excited about it, that I kept a few of the cups and threw them in my 64 cubic foot commercial-sized compost bin. It made me happy to think that the material would eventually be back in my garden, and that according to Greenware, the cup was made from "sustainable" resources (a fact sharply disputed by the revelation that the cups are made of genetically modified corn). Let's also ignore the fact that everywhere these cups are served, thousands of them are thrown in the trash, to be hauled to the landfill or incinerator like any other plastic garbage. Greenware would say, "Well, the landowner should contract with an industrial composter to haul them off." So be it.
As I tended my compost bin over the summer and the following spring (I obey all the basic rules of composting and get pretty amazing results), I occasionally turned over a cup, or a piece of a cup. They didn't seem to be getting very brittle, or certainly any more brittle than a petroleum-based plastic cup would be when exposed to 120 degree heat for months at a time. I continued to get fully processed, great, dark compost out of my bin all year long, so I know that the conditions in the bin were near-optimal.
In the summer of 2009, it was time to haul out the "low batch" of compost in the bottom of the bin - a full year had passed since I had incorporated that material (including the Greenware cups). Every single cup and lid were accounted for, and while crushed under the weight of other compost, were generally intact.
So here's the bottom line: Greenware is a great example of greenwashing. Confronted by the fact that their "100% compostable" and "sustainable" product is neither, they abruptly changed their materials to claim that their products are merely "eco-friendly." A corporate vendor's website states: "Just plow them under or throw them in your compost bin," and the cups will be reduced to compost in "months." Greenware's own website takes a slightly different approach, "100% compostable in actively managed municipal or industrial facilities, where available."
I'm no lawyer, but those two statements are not the same. How did their vendors get the idea that these were compostable by residential compost facilities? Not from Greenware, I'm sure.
Greenware supplies a link to EVERY compost bin in the United States capable of biodegrading Greenware. There are forty-four. No, silly, not just in your county! 44 Total! There appear to be less than 10 south of the CT/NY border, south to Florida, west to Texas, and up the Mississippi River (looking east). So while Greenware continues to claim, "we totally promise these are compostable," they are completely aware that most consumers (and municipalities) do not have access to a composting facility that can handle Greenware. They are literally selling a compostable item that they already know will not be successfully compostable, in 90%? 95%? 99%? of cases. Let's just say, "the vast majority of consumers cannot compost this product at all."
I'd like to ask you all (all both of you, ha ha) to take a look at the products you're purchasing. If they claim to be "green" or "sustainable" or "organic" and you're paying a lot more for them, please look a little deeper into their claims. If it's another Greenwashed product, you'd be better off just buying the conventional product and saving your money. And you know what'd be even better for the planet? Buying less to begin with.

100% compostable? Nay, Greenware!
Update: Greenware does indeed have a "No Greenwashing Pledge." In that pledge, they remind their customers that their products are meant to be "disposable;" that is, unless you have an "actively managed municipal scale composting operation" (that meets Greenware's standards) in your town (remember, there are SIX such facilities between New York City and Dallas, TX; and 44 TOTAL in the United States).
Now THAT'S corporate honesty. I'm sure they really believe that all of their consumers who use their "100% compostable" cups live within driving distance of one of those facilities!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Great Community Garden Project of 2010

"This is where the magic happens!"
My plot's condition, 1 week after I received my gate key to the site.
Our little urban/suburban yard in Baltimore is blessed & cursed with ample shade. For 5 years, I tried to garden in spite of this reality. Some efforts (tobacco, peppers, and cool season crops) have proven to be successes (to varying degrees), while others (squash, cucumbers, and watermelon) have proven to be complete failures. In early 2009 I decided to rent a small garden (and not in someone's yard), so ultimately I found out about the City Farm Project in Baltimore, where unused parcels within City parks are fenced off and rented to City residents for gardening (annual plants only) for $30/year (which includes water, compost, manure, and mulch). I received a nice letter saying that the program was at capacity but "maybe next year." Grumble.
So in February 2010 I received a letter from the program asking me to send in a $40 money order for a single plot ($30 for rent, $10 for the key). I did, and was kind of amazed to show up at my new garden plot and see the sight in the first picture. OUCH! The soil was in horrible condition and it took me two evenings to break it by hand with a 5lb maddux. Given the awful condition of the soil (these sites aren't given up by the City because of high soil fertility, haha), I decided to do a mix of raised beds and row planting.

Cold day in early April - bringing in lumber for raised beds
The plot is 10' x 20' - hardly gigantic, so some intensive gardening is going to take place. I built two beds of 4' x 8' and two beds of 4' x 6', and have enough space for a 10' x 2' bed next year, if I feel motivated to put it in. I'll be interested to see how the soil fares in the "bare rows" vs. in the raised beds.

Early April - Raised beds assembled.

Mid-April - augmenting the soil with leaf compost and some kind of manure from the Baltimore Zoo.
Meeting people at the "City Farm" has been interesting. I have met about 10 other gardeners, all of them over 60 years old, and only one woman. However, their ideas about gardening are very different, and I hope to watch this play out (as a fly on the wall) as the growing season progresses.
Some clearly use chemical fertilizer and insecticide, most don't (I'd like to avoid both, given that manure and compost are free, and there should be tons of beneficial insects around).
. A few (like me) have raised beds, most don't. Some are focused on just raising a few types of crops, others seem to cast the net quite wide in terms of plant species. I'm somewhere in the middle - having never grown a single plant in this soil, I don't know what to expect.

End of April - Garlic and chives quite happy, peppers and a few tomatoes transplanted, and okra and carrots seeded.
This is going to be an experiment in human dynamics as well as gardening - I'll provide updates as the season continues, and see if anything makes it "unproductive" to rent this plot (and/or others) in 2011 and beyond. So far, the skeleton staff and the volunteers at City Farm have been really nice and helpful.
For the record....the plantings:
Chives - transplant
White Garlic - transplant
Mole' Peppers - transplant (from seed)
Cayenne Peppers - transplant (from seed)
Habanero Pepper - transplant
Early Jalapeno Peppers - transplant (from seed / organic)
Tomato / Sweet Million - transplant
Nantes Coreless Carrot - seed
Okra / Clemson Spineless - seed
Spinach / Regatta Hybrid - seed
Cucumber / Spacemaster - transplant (from seed)
Squash / Crookneck - transplant (from seed)
Watermelon / Sugar Baby - transplant (from seed)
Millet / Purple Majesty - transplant (from seed)
Sunflower / Mammoth - seed
Corn - hybrid not selected yet - seed

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