Thursday, June 23, 2016

Just arrived

Taken on Father's Day, with proud papa (and mama) perched overhead: red-winged blackbird nest along Verdigre Creek.

Friday, June 10, 2016

After my own heart

...They took their way towards the house on the opposite side of the river, in the nearest direction; but their progress was slow, for Mr. Gardiner, though seldom able to indulge the taste, was very fond of fishing, and was so much engaged in watching the occasional appearance of some trout in the water, and talking to the man about them, that he advanced but little.

—Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Northern water snake

Not a water moccasin. The northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon), while it can be an aggressive biter if provoked, is a non-venomous snake, and I was delighted to see several on a recent outing. Jess was somewhat less thrilled, especially since the first one took her quite by surprise as we were watching bluegills and green sunfish maintain and defend their nests at the edge of a pond. Nevertheless, she recovered nicely and took many of the photographs here.

Northern water snakes are, obviously, strong swimmers. When hunting, they tend to cruise the water immediately adjacent to the bank—hence Jessica's sudden alarm. They are apt to head for open water when themselves startled, or when traveling rather than actively looking for prey.

They also hunt ambush-fashion, generally facing the bank and keeping uncannily still, either completely submerged or with head held above the surface. In this attitude, they resemble nothing so much as a stick in the water, and doubtless this is the last thing many a frog or vole doesn't see. (Camouflage was probably enhanced on this particular day by the abundance of cottonwood down floating on the water.)

We also saw the snakes immobilised on the bottom amidst the sunfish nests; whether this represented ambush hunting or merely resting, we couldn't be certain, but it was impressive how long they stayed under. Even more surprising was how little alarm this seemed to occasion among the fish, though these were probably large enough not to be in any danger.

A few more portraits of these gorgeous serpents to round things out:

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Old friends

A long time ago, before I was born, my great-aunt and -uncle were the proprietors of Five Oak Pony Farm in Baltimore County, Maryland. The farm was named not for five trees, but for one tree: The Five Oak, so called for its five major limbs. Situated on the crest of Satyr Hill, I'm told that it could be seen from Baltimore Harbor, some ten or twelve miles away; a huge tree.

My great-uncle, a taciturn Welshman named Evor Esaias, I do not remember well; he passed away early in my childhood. My great-aunt, on the other hand, I must cite as a major influence in the course of my life. Her given name was Eunice, but I and everyone else knew her (for reasons beyond my ken) as Aunt Pete. She was a naturalist; along with my grandfather (her brother) and my mom, she is responsible for my lifelong love of birds. When I eventually became a falconer, Aunt Pete had a better understanding than anyone else in my family of what that entailed. She herself interacted with hawks in a different way: a crack shot with an air rifle, she would dispatch grey squirrels when they overstayed their welcome at her birdfeeders, leaving them for the resident redtails on a sawed-off tree limb she called "the altar".

But long before this, she and Uncle Evor would ensnare carpenter bees in nooses of horsehair; we kids would hold the end of the horsehair and the bees would fly in little circles around us. We would feed the fish in her pond, or try to catch the chickens in her coop, or watch the birds come and go from the feeders, or explore the woods and the abandoned house down the hill. (Looking back, I know it had to have been lived in at least into the 1930s; we once found parts of an old Monopoly game, with green paint nearly worn from the wooden houses and red from the hotels.) We had the run of the place, and I feel sorry for kids who don't have their own places to roam at will.

Horsehair, yes—back on track now. The pony business was done before my time, but three Shetlands remained: Tryggvi, her daughter Twig, and Natalie. Tryggvi, like Uncle Evor, died early in my life, leaving only faint fond memories. Twig left me with more significant recollections. Although I had been warned many times not to walk behind the horses, I was on one occasion sent flying through the air by a rear hoof to the chest—an early lesson in being polite to animals that has served me well. (The companion lesson in minding my elders took repeating, but eventually that set in also.) This incident notwithstanding, Twig was a sweetheart, and I enjoyed currying her and feeding her sweet oats as much as I enjoyed riding her.

But if Twig was a sweetheart, Natalie was my sweetheart, arguably my best friend through my middle-school and high-school years. Twig's idea of a joke was to brush off an unwary rider on a low-hanging branch, but Natalie was very gentle and absolutely trustworthy, and I rode her far more often. Later, on visits home from university, I would sometimes bring her apples (Twig had passed away by this point), burying my nose in her neck as she gently slurped the fruit from my outstretched palm. She never forgot me, and I can only hope she didn't worry too much about where I disappeared to.

Forgive my rambling; such are the thoughts triggered by the rediscovery of an old photograph, discolored by age but vivid in memory. I loved these little horses, and I find by the tears and the smile on my face that after all this time, I still do.

[Twig (left) and Natalie]


Thursday, May 19, 2016

A golden blur

When a rainbow trout is hooked, the resulting blur is silver. (Forget any painting you've ever seen of a rainbow trout leaping from the water, arched just so, with an identifiable dry fly hooked at the corner of the mouth. No one has ever seen that static image, even for an instant, in real life. The fish simply thrashes too quickly for the human eye to resolve. I'd like to see Andrew Ellis try that painting, though; he conveys blur, a sense of motion, better than any other painter I'm aware of, though of course his preferred subject matter is birds. But I digress.) If there is enough pink on the fish, the blur partakes of this, resembling the pink foil wrapper on a Hershey's Kiss at Eastertime. But the last fish I caught over the weekend came up as a buttery, golden blur.

The golden blur resolved into this, a beautiful little (about 7 inches) brown trout.

This small fish was a trophy for a couple of reasons. For one thing, brown trout are generally considered more discerning than other trout species; it's been said that not only do they recognize most artificial flies, but they can usually name the patterns, and older fish may know the page numbers in the Cabela's and Orvis catalogues. Furthermore, while this creek is regularly stocked with rainbows, the last stocking of browns was a couple of decades ago, so this was an indisputably wild fish.

Bill Spear has called brown trout "the only sporty German import you'll find for under $50K", and it's true that the first brown trout brought to the States were from the Black Forest, but subsequent shipments included fish from the British Isles as well, so I'll assume some kinship with this little jewel.

A quick family portrait, and he was back on his way...

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Verdigre in May

Jessica and I spent virtually the whole of last weekend within a couple hundred yards of this one-lane bridge, at our favourite campsite on Verdigre Creek. We weren't the only ones sticking close: eastern phoebes were nesting on the girders underneath.

Birds, of course, are part of the attraction here, and they were out in force, but the profusion of dame's rocket made an equally strong impression—it was blooming everywhere we looked.

I've noticed before the abundance of downed trees—with gratitude, too, for fallen trees along the creek are part of what makes it such good habitat for trout—and now we know there's more than wind to thank. The beavers have been hard at work this spring.

Ah yes, trout, one of the main reasons we come here. The fishing was good but challenging, as usual; with all the in-stream vegetation, swinging nymphs and streamers tends to work best here.


Scenes from camp and creek:

[Photos by Mark & Jessica, mostly Jessica]

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The recipe

As a native of Maryland, I naturally consider the Preakness Stakes the more important race, but as a Churchill I of course take an interest in the Kentucky Derby as well. Accordingly, I am posting (a week in advance, so that interested readers may gather ingredients) the following letter from Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. to Maj. Gen. William D. Connor. More than a recipe, it is a classic of Southern literature; Jessica says "that may well be the most beautiful thing ever written." So, without further ado, save a tip of the hat to Chris K. for sending me the text:

My Dear General Connor:

Your letter requesting my formula for mixing mint juleps leaves me in the same position in which Captain Barber found himself when asked how he was able to carve the image of an elephant from a block of wood. He said that it was a simple process consisting merely of whittling off the part that didn't look like an elephant!

The preparation of the quintessence of gentlemanly beverages can be described only in like terms. A mint julep is not a product of a formula. It is a ceremony and must be performed by a gentleman possessing a true sense of the artistic, a deep reverence for the ingredients and a proper appreciation of the occasion. It is a rite that must not be entrusted to a novice, a statistician nor a Yankee! It is a heritage of the Old South; an emblem of hospitality and a vehicle in which noble minds can travel together upon the flower-strewn paths of a happy and congenial thought.

So far as the mere mechanics of the operation are concerned, the procedure, stripped of its ceremonial embellishments, can be described as follows:

Go to a spring where cool, crystal-clear water bubbles from under a bank of dew-washed ferns; in a consecrated vessel, dip up a little water at the source. Follow the stream thru its banks of green moss and wild flowers until it broadens and trickles thru beds of mint growing in aromatic profusion and waving softly in the summer breeze. Gather the sweetest and tenderest shoots and gently carry them home. Go to the sideboard and select a decanter of Kentucky Bourbon distilled by a master hand, mellowed with age, yet still vigorous and inspiring. An ancestral sugar bowl, a row of silver goblets, some spoons and some ice and you are ready to start.

Into a canvas bag, pound twice as much ice as you think you will need. Make it fine as snow, keep it dry and do not allow it to degenerate into slush.

Into each goblet, put a slightly heaping teaspoonful of granulated sugar, barely cover this with spring water and slightly bruise one mint leaf into this, leaving the spoon in the goblet. Then pour elixir from the decanter until the goblets are about one-fourth full. Fill the goblets with snowy ice, sprinkling in a small amount of sugar as you fill. Wipe the outside of the goblets dry, and embellish copiously with mint.

Then comes the delicate and important operation of frosting. By proper manipulation of the spoons, the ingredients are circulated and blended until nature, wishing to take a further hand and add another of its beautiful phenomena, encrusts the whole in a glistening coat of white frost; thus, harmoniously blended by the deft touches of a skilled hand, you have a beverage eminently appropriate for honorable men and beautiful women.

When all is ready, assemble your guests on the porch or in the garden where the aroma of the juleps will rise heavenward and make the birds sing. Propose a worthy toast, raise the goblets to your lips, bury your nose in the mint, inhale a deep breath of its fragrance and sip the nectar of the gods!

Being overcome with thirst, I can write no further.

Sincerely, Lt. Gen. S.B. Buckner, Jr. VMI Class of 1906

[Photo by Ellie Churchill]

Friday, April 29, 2016



[Photos by Mark & Jessica. Click to embiggen.]