Monday, February 25, 2013

Gear Review: EcoSMART Safe Plant and Garden Value Bundle

Sometimes, "going green" is an obvious choice.  Sometimes, it's actually a short-sighted idea.  The latter is clearly not the case when it comes to garden-scale application of pesticides, now recognized to be a significant source of chemicals that kill stream insects.  In fact, chemicals banned for use by commercial farms decades ago are still showing up in streams, which suggests that gardeners and homeowners are inadvertently putting them there.  The logic, which could use some scientific testing but seems reasonable enough, is that gardeners buy chemicals to solve a problem at a certain time.  The chemical solution is relatively cheap ($10-20), and the gardener does not expect the problem to return, so "why not use it all?"  In theory, this is not the case with farmers, who buy chemicals in bulk and expect to have to use the same chemicals repeatedly.  Overuse, in theory, means wasted profit.  Hey, I like the theory.   Enter, the importance of organic (or at least less dangerous) chemicals for gardeners, and companies like EcoSMART that focus on that market.

In August 2011, I was contacted by EcoSMART's  to test out their "Safe Plant and Garden Value Bundle," which includes four pre-mixed organic formulations:   Weed and Grass Killer, Garden Fungicide, Garden Insect Killer, and Insect Repellent.  The combo is available from EcoSMART's website for $26 + shipping, which is about a 30% discount from buying the products individually, or buying the comparable conventional chemicals.  The fact that organic chemicals now cost the same as, or less than, conventional chemicals is an amazing thing - that is, if it can be demonstrated that the organics are as effective as the conventional chemicals in the control of "target organisms."  I tested the four chemicals in Fall, 2011 (a tough season to really evaluate their effectiveness) and then throughout the first half of the 2012 growing season.  Here's how the individual chemicals fared:

Insect Repellent.  Out of all four products, we were most satisfied with this one.  It comes in a mist-spray bottle and smells pleasant, the way most other organic repellents do.   I kept it in my garden bucket and occasionally in my fishing pack, and it never failed against freshwater mosquitoes and minor cases of black flies.  I did not test it against thick deerflies or blackflies on the outer coast, where the most brutal conventional formulations even seem to fail.  I used the EcoSMART insect repellent on my three-year old, and it was fine on his (somewhat sensitive) skin and seemed to keep the mosquitoes at bay.  Grade: A

Weed and Grass Killer.  This is a tall order in my garden, which is constantly beset by bermudagrass, nutsedge, henbit, and a variety of other dodgy weeds common to this part of the world.  I applied EcoSMART Weed and Grass Killer in a variety of different ways to the whole Scoundrel's Row of weeds.  The two active ingredients, 2-Phenethyl-Propionate and Eugenol, both plant-based compounds, were scarily effective on weed seedlings and young plants.  However, in beds that I'd neglected to weed, the chemical seemed to burn the tips but not effectively transport down the stem and to the root.   Overall, EcoSMART Weed and Grass Killer is not going to replace the task of weeding, though it's not entirely fair that I would expect it to do so.  Grade: C.

Garden Insect Killer.  In the class of organic pesticides, "insect killer" is where I've generally found the most successful products. That's because the plant world is full of natural insect killers - even well known things like nicotine, THC, and opium.  EcoSMART's Garden Insect Killer is no different.  It put a hurting on aphids, spider mites (tough customers against most organic insecticides), sugar ants, and several other undesirables in my garden (note: I manage our garden for high numbers of pollinating insects, so NOT killing them all is quite important).   It did not seem to be effective on caterpillars (rollers, whites), but then again, most chemicals are not.  Like most organic insecticides, EcoSMART's formulation requires more frequent application than the longer-residence conventional chemicals (which is why we don't favor them in our garden).  EcoSMART's Garden Insect Killer is inexpensive and effective.   There's no excuse to not try it.  Grade: B

Garden Fungicide.  This product is sulfur-based, which is no surprise since sulfur is a common compound in both organic and conventional fungicides, and has been used for this purpose for hundreds - maybe thousands - of years.   Our garden soil is "made" - I construct it almost entirely of compost, wood chips, and peat moss.  As a result, the % OM is extremely high, which leads to a fungally-dominated soil.  In many ways - too many to address here - that's a great thing for the garden.  However, all that rotting wood leads to undesirable "macro-fungi" like puffballs and stinkhorns.  Try rooting around in the garden for a squash, only to get a wet handful of stinkhorn.  Eww.  Unfortunately, this fungicide, like all fungicides, can only treat fungi that you spray - fungi that are already there.  They cannot - and this chemical cannot - treat the underlying conditions for a repeated infestation of fungi.  If you have rotting mulch in a garden or flower bed on the east coast, you will definitely get a stinkhorn invasion.  Overall though, this product seems to do no more and no less than comparable organic and conventional formulations.  Grade: B

Overall, this package is still a great value at $26, and I encourage you to give it a try.  If not, I still highly recommend the Insect Repellent because it's a great product, and the Insect Killer because it's a good product and a great value.  

Note:  I was not compensated for this review, however, I was provided with the $26 Garden Bundle described above, so that I would have something to review.  This review is fair and honest and is based on knowledge gained through my 16-year personal background in sustainable gardening and my15-year professional background in wildlife habitat management. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Gear Review: 2012 Black Diamond Cosmo Headlamp

Sometimes, I catch a product on the way up.  Other times, I catch a product on the way down and out.  The 2012 Black Diamond Cosmo Headlamp  represents the latter, as far as serious outdoor uses are concerned.  On paper, the Cosmo is a sleek, lightweight, moderately powerful 3x LED headlamp that looks like an obvious primary lamp for a serious hiker, hunter, or angler.   It's a good looking lamp.

Just several years ago, a 55 lumen LED headlamp, powered by just 2 AAA batteries, would have been a game changer for outdoorsfolk. In fact, my best headlamp prior to this purchase cost $50 and featured a 39 lumen xenon bulb that requires 4 AA batteries, if that's any indication of 2005 technology.  I hadn't bought into the LED craze (except for a few backup LED headlamps I keep laying around), so when I saw the Black Diamond display at my local REI, I was able to compare the models, from least to most powerful.  The Cosmo, $35 at the time, was in the middle of the group and seemed like a great compromise.  Spoiler alert: it's now available on Black Diamond's website for $20.   Click here to see.

The Cosmo has a dimmer switch on the primary bulb - a new and useful feature to me - would be very useful for camping, in particular.  The secondary bulbs are what - mathematically - make the difference between a 40 lumen and a 55 lumen light.   One annoying thing about the Cosmo (I have no idea if other Black Diamond lamps are this way) is that it's impossible to assemble in a pinch.   My first chance to use the Cosmo was "one of those situations" where I absolutely had to get it out of the box and on my head ASAP.  And I couldn't.  I couldn't get the strap to thread the two bars on the back of the lamp.  I came ridiculously close to breaking the lamp while doing this in the dark, and ultimately gave up, having to carry the lamp in my hand while I wandered about in the rain, in the dark.

However, the main problem is that I'd bet the Cosmo was really designed to be a tight quarters lamp.  At close range, the 55 lumens really shine well (is that even a thing?), and was more than bright enough once inside the duck blind or under the truck or up in the tree.  Crisp, unfaltering, white light.  I really liked it.  But for walking a trail at night, or seeing what's in front of the boat, or even looking from the boat's stern to the bow, the light's power trails off quickly and becomes quite unhelpful.  As a result, I've re-enlisted my 30lb xenon headlamp until I can afford a brighter LED lamp.   Here's a lamp comparison chart from (who currently offers this lamp for $29).

Prior to starting this review, I was having this very discussion over at Steve Kline's blog, when a Black Diamond staffer or product rep chipped in with the following information:

The Cosmo will get updated in Spring 13 and will be brighter. The Spot is really the happy medium between the Storm and Cosmo. It's a bit lighter (3 AAAs vs 4) and not waterproof (although rated for "sprayed water from all angles"). The S13 ReVolt is really revolutionary as well: as bright as the Storm/Spot and runs off three rechargeable (via USB aka your phone charger) or three normal AAA batteries. 

So, now you have all the pieces to the puzzle.  At its current price ($21 via Black Diamond, $22 via Sierra Trading Post), I recommend that the 2012 Black Diamond Cosmo as a fully capable headlamp for "car camping," tent duty, and home and auto repairs.  Given its extremely light weight and water resistance, I also recommend it as a backup headlamp in your pack.  However, I cannot give it an adequate rating as a primary headlamp in wide open, dark places, particularly at its suggested retail value of $34.99.

Disclaimer: I was not compensated for this review or provided this gear at any discount, nor did I unsuccessfully solicit free or discounted gear.  This is a fair and honest review of an outdoor product that I have used. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Hunting Climate

I don't know what to make of Maryland winters anymore.  I'm not sure what the long-term trend is (except for warming), but each year is distinctly different from the previous one.  In some ways, having this blog helps that.

In just moments, I can read back at how the 2007-2008 waterfowl season was dominated by a summer drought that continued into early November, but ultimately, cold rains and snow came, which provided for a great late duck season.

The 2008-2009 season was dominated by extreme cold which made the goose hunting pretty good, and the duck hunting awful.

The 2009-2010 season featured a whole ton of snow but it never got as cold as the previous season, and hunting was okay.

The 2010-2011 season was quite average, good, really, given that I was out of town for most of it and still had some great hunts...

.....and the 2011-2012 season was arguably the worst on record for the last 30 years, netting me a total of 0 geese and 4 ducks.

So when I'm breaking out my MS Outlook calendar at the beginning of waterfowl season in Fall 2013, how exactly do I dedicate my limited time off?   I've tried duplicating the successful weather-based scheduling tactics of previous years - it fails.  I try doing the opposite of what I did in previous years.  Still seems to fail.  I'm quite randomly successful or unsuccessful in hunting, given the already hit-or-miss nature of the Atlantic Flyway.  It's possible that I am, in fact, learning, but perhaps just too slowly to evolve with the rapidly changing nature of the Flyway.

So...maybe it's time to try another flyway? Or maybe I'm in for another year of learning.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Duck Season's End - The Wrong Kind of Gamble

It's true that a story can be too long, no matter how good it is.  So let's start at the end.  B-Senior screeched through the darkness and falling snow, "Boys, we gotta get the hell outta here!"  The hunt that had started as a casual hike across a mile-long, bone dry sand spit in broad daylight now found us wading through waist-deep ice floes and trying to save as many decoys as we could, and praying that the dog had made it to shore ahead of us.   But that's not the end of the story, either.  Let's go to the end.

Frozen, sandy mess
So there we were, at the barn.  It would have been pitch black but for the light of the driving snow. The ATV was covered in ice, sand, and leaves, and was steaming.  Its flat tire was impossible to ignore.  I got a few pats on the back for my adventurous driving through the ice, snow, and high tide, but no one actually spoke.  All of our waders were frozen stiff in the positions that we held on the ATV as it did its best to reach dry land.  We were all bleeding on the face and hands from striking willow branches at 20mph - the other option to be to run into 18-inch deep saltwater slush, in the dark, in 20 degree air. That plan ate an ATV on that same beach a few years ago.   We chose the branches.  The dog was already curled up underneath B-Junior's truck, trying to get warm.   We had taken down about 40 decoys, came back with about 30, all of them now frozen together in a sandy, icy block.

The other 10 decoys were still out on the river, in the dark, trapped between blocks of floating ice.  A few more were scattered along the beach, somewhere, under the snow, in nearly empty decoy bags that were ripped out of the ATV by the willow branches.

Our buddies had shot on "The Spit" in the morning.  No high tide to worry about, they said.  There's actually too little water, they said.  They had shot more ducks than had been shot on the creek in recent memory - years - and the incoming snow storm and cloud cover offered us a near guarantee of the same.

Our first view of the inlet showed us all we thought we needed to know.  The first few snowflakes of the storm.  Dozens of ducks swimming casually around the duck blind.  Some black ducks flew right past us at less than five yards, as we stood on the beach unarmed, and they landed behind the blind.  The excitement built.

We noticed the tide trying to push into the creek - pressurized under ice in the River.  There was a bit of a current but it seemed manageable.  We put out a nice decoy spread of buffleheads, mallards, black ducks, and geese.   The ducks started flying immediately.  Our first treat was a nice flock of 15 mallards that came very close to landing in the spread.  We were committed to them doing so...entirely forgetting that it was the end of January and few ducks would be so foolish.  They circled three times - the last time in range, and then left without us firing a shot - still waiting for a belly-up shot.  That was the last time that happened.

The snow began to fell quite heavily which led us to goof up a number of shots.  One with black ducks sitting in the decoy spread as we chatted, and several other opportunities to shoot bluebills and buffleheads between the duck blind and the decoys.  Easy stuff - all flew away unharassed.  Finally, we started to take our toll.  First were the gadwall.  Then the mallards.  Then geese who were flying just a bit too close.  More of each should have fallen, but some of each did fall.   I need to remember on overhead shots on geese (from rear to front), the shot has to be taken immediately overhead because the going-away shot on such a large bird is not likely to be fatal.

The snow intensified and became blinding.  We lost the ability to see ducks coming into the decoys, instead only hearing the whistling winds pass by the duck blind.  Geese began to sit down and chatter on the ice about 500 yards away, eventually pulling several thousand birds from local fields onto that same spot.

Then, all hell broke lose.  The dog got stuck in the ice - too thin to walk over, too thick to swim through - and then I looked the other way, only to see that half of the decoys were ripping away in the current.  What had been a few inches of water under the blind had become two feet of ice and salt water, and it was clear that things were changing rapidly.  We used my handy decoy retrieval pole to save several, but then the pole itself was nearly ripped to pieces by another ice floe just below the surface of the creek.

Decoys in a frozen pile
We tried to re-arrange the remaining decoys out of the main strength of the current, but the setup looked horrible.  Luckily, the snow probably saved us on that count, as the ducks didn't seem to be able to see much more than we could.  We killed a few more ducks at very close range (afraid to shoot birds that might sail over the ice) and then without much fanfare, legal shooting time expired on my last hunt of the season.

B-Junior and I went about the process of picking up the ice-crusted decoys, several of the anchors already frozen together, and B-Senior went to retrieve the Polaris, which had earlier gotten us within 200 yards of the blind, and was parked another quarter mile up the beach, on high ground (because you never can be sure).   We watched geese fly right over the blind - nearly striking it several times due to snow blindness, and laughed about the impossibility of that happening 15 minutes earlier, within legal shooting hours.  I looked at the full moon and the silent, driving snow, and thanked God for another full and exciting hunting season.   The peace was broken after just a moment with a brisk, "Boys, we gotta get the hell outta here!"

Last look at the blind...

Friday, February 8, 2013

Canvasbacks, Schmanvasbacks

The Rig
So, if you are one of the up to one hundred and seven whole people who have read my past few posts about hunting faster, lighter, and smaller, I bring you........

Going back to conventional hunting.  I mean, I had no choice.  Well that's not true.

I was giving a wetland project tour to some folks, which around 3pm dissolved into, "We should probably go hunting.  Freeze-up is coming tonight.  Bet the canvasbacks will move."

I haven't harvested a canvasback in at least two years, so I said, "Yeah okay, let's go."  Now, the way I'm writing this makes it sound like I was all disaffected by this impromptu hunting opportunity, and honestly, that is not the case.  I knew that a freeze was coming - the type of freeze we used to see around December 10th of every duck season, and now sometimes don't see until after the end of duck season in early February.  And since it was the last week of duck season, well, why not?

As has been the case many times this season, the three of us could have killed a 40 man limit of buffleheads if we would have paid attention to what was going on in front of us instead of running our mouths (I am at least as guilty as most, if not more so).  But the canvasbacks never came.    I didn't mind.  It was one more offshore hunt.  One more try to get some cold water canvasbacks.  Like most things in the last few years of east coast waterfowling, the timing just wasn't right.

For the first time that I can ever remember, we called the hunt off before the end of shooting time.  I have one more hunt left in me.  I hope it's more productive, and maybe even more exciting.

Monday, February 4, 2013

A Quiet, Successful Hunt

As the waterfowl season began to wind down a few weeks ago, and as the cold weather began setting in slowly - not the rapid hard freeze from Albany to Raleigh that we saw two and three and four years ago - I centered in my true hunting goals - being smart. safe. successful.

Just 36 hours prior, I'd bagged my first duck of the season - a Black Duck, no less - by hunting quickly, adaptively, and with great focus.   I returned on this early morning under different weather, different tides, and with plans to adapt even more strongly to the things I'd seen on the creek two days prior.

I set up decoys in the same area of the island, but farther out into the creek.  To the bufflehead, black duck, and goose spread, I added a dozen bluebills on a long line.   I tied one end to 100' of camo rope, and the other end of the rope to a tree just offshore, thinking that the current would carry the decoys offshore.  Yeah, that didn't work.  Somehow, though, the bluebill decoys ended up not touching, though congregated together in a circle.

Legal shooting time was nearly upon me as I set out the last of the decoys.  I was excited to be done "on time" without help from anyone else.   My gun was loaded, but propped up on my cedar "hideaway" on the shoreline.  A single goose nearly landed on me in the darkness - it had come across the creek without a single call.  It floated in the decoys for a minute, and then frantically flew out.  Before shooting time could arrive, another single goose flew in from the open river and landed in the decoys.  Just a few minutes early.  Amazing what difference 10 minutes can make in hunting.    Ten minutes later, another single goose flew into the decoys, but it was dead before it hit the water. Amazing.

It's also amazing what difference a bird in hand can make in your hunting approach for the day.   I was relieved and confident.  I had done it right once again.  No help.  No tips.  Just me.    As the wind picked up, ducks started appearing on different parts of the island shoreline.  I couldn't help myself from going to sit where each new group flew in, hoping they'd attract more.  What actually happened is that I held off on making fairly easy air and "water swat" shots on ducks that were less than 30 yards away, in hopes that more would come.  That was a mistake.  Next January, my mantra will be "It's January, they aren't coming any closer."   Once I stumbled down a shoreline area and flushed out a dozen bufflehead.  Another time I tripped over a stump near my decoys, which spooked up two black ducks hiding on the creek side of my "cedar hideaway."  I tried to convince myself that they were too close together to shoot (our limit on black ducks is 1 - strictly enforced).  That was a silly theory.

I finally made good, and while sitting inshore of the decoys, happened to catch a trio of buffleheads coming straight in toward me.  I shot once and all three fell about 5 yards in front of me.  I've been through that drill before with diving ducks, so I shot them again.  Diver hunters know what I mean.

It quickly became 10am, and with ducks starting to loaf in the middle of the creek, I knew I'd be unlikely to kill any more.  I tried to stalk several of the goose loafing areas around the farm, and come to find out, you can't really sneak up on 400 geese.  Still, it was a great hunt.  I wish all hunts went that way - everything seeming to fit into some sort of plan that didn't actually exist.   The hunts from here will get harder, as it's now clear that we won't get any new migratory birds before the end of hunting season.   Smart birds require a smarter hunter.

Friday, February 1, 2013

January Journal (Jan 2013)

I've decided to keep some extra thoughts laying around on a separate blog post, once per month.  And now, here it is, and here you are.  January held some interesting times, for sure.  Even though I personally did not take off much time over the holidays, many colleagues were off of work for the better part of a month, and now that the holidays are over, wanted to meet with me immediately, because all that was not of great concern on December 15th was suddenly a matter of DEFCON-5 national security on January 2.   It's a bit tedious.  So, what happened in January?

We closed out hunting season.  What a weird hunting season.  There was a migration, sort of.  It was cold, sort of, except when it was 75 degrees in December.  Out of 60 days of waterfowl season, I ended hunting 14 mornings or evenings, which, given my work and family responsibilities, feels like a good balance. I can't imagine hunting 25 days (including some full days) like I did before I became a dad.  Total damage was five ducks and fifteen geese.  I feel okay about that as well.

I hunted smarter.  I took my own advice from previous seasons and it paid off.  Things like not hunting extremely high tides, not hunting the full moon, and being prepared to drastically change my hunting plans if the forecast turned out to be wrong (hint: it usually was wrong).   It felt good to have some successful hunts on my own, and emotionally, it took me back to the 5 or 6 years when I was working really hard (too hard) to learn how to hunt ducks and geese.  The value of even a single bird in hand is incalculable, and I guess I had gotten away from that.

Finished first two elevated garden beds.  I tried to save on lumber by creating the bottom of the elevated beds out of plastic bird proofing fence and fir lattice, and yeah, that was a disaster that I now have to fix on my totally installed elevated garden beds.  Can  you say "four inch wood screws?!" I have five more beds to build in the next five months, and I need to get smarter - fast.

Started teaching again.  Felt weird to be starting the spring semester of college on a 15 degree thursday night, and then hunting in a blinding snowstorm on friday morning.  But it happened. I am thankful to have a second job to help cover our expenses these days.  But it's tiring.  It's hard to be in a management position at my full time job, anywhere from 8-12 hours per day, and then go teach for another 3 hours, a few nights a week.

Prepped for wetland construction at work.   At least 50% of my director's justification for creating my job in 2011 was the construction of three big wetland projects.  Finished the first one in September, 2012.  Second one finally got its permits and goes under the blade (bulldozer blade, ha ha, get it?) the first week of February.  Still need a permit for the third one, a doozy of a job I'll be writing about quite a bit.   Also working on a tidal wetland job that should kick off this week, and a little stormwater wetland I'm building in front of our office.

Waited for the tax damage to roll in.  No further comment.  The tax reversion ate - in entirety- the small raise I received in late 2012.

Tried to learn more about peoples' arcs through life, success, disaster, etc.  I'm learning that sometimes when I deal with a person who is a problem, I'm just getting them at a particular part of a personal or professional trail that has a definite beginning and a definite end.  Sometimes these people infuriate me with their incompetence, their lack of passion, and their lack of urgency.  I need to better understand and accept that "this too shall pass."  The bad guys normally get what's coming to them.   Just survive, wait, and watch them tear themselves to pieces.  I'm also trying to be more conscious about understanding what my role should be in some of these complex situations.  At nearly 39, I've figured out that  it's not my job to be the hero in every single situation.  But for some reason, I'm just now learning that there are more roles to play than "hero" and "bystander."   I'm testing out the waters in a few cases....we'll see how it goes.

Dadtacular.  I cannot believe that Hank is so big.  He is such an amazing boy.  He loves his momma, superheroes, and Darth Vader.  What a pleasure to watch him, teach him, and learn from him.  Unfortunately his #1 (but not only) pooping location is still his pants.   We'll get there.

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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...