Archives for December 2012

Op-Ed: Cliffs, Congress And Consternation by Fletcher Hall

This article is being written at 3 P.M. on Sunday, December, 30.

Both houses of Congress are in session on a rare Sunday afternoon. Maybe they are unaware of all the important fool games today.

Congress, and the President, has until midnight Monday to avert the “fiscal cliff” which will affect all American taxpayers and our general economy.

How ridiculous that the United States Congress is waiting until the last hour to even to try to pass such significantly importation federal legislation. Both political parties appear to have intractable positions, and compromise seems a distant possibility. This applies also to the President’s position. No matter what he may think, his narrow reelection was not a mandate. Not when it comes to the national economy which affects nearly every citizen.

The Congress is not doing the people’s business.

Both the Congress and the President have known for a long period of time that this fiscal deadline has a finite legislative action date. They have not yet had the courage to avert $500 billion in tax increases that will take place late Monday. How disconcerting for the American people and especially American businesses, small and large.

In the Senate, with leaders such as Harry Reid, Barbara Boxer of California and Charles Schumer of New York , in key positions, it looks like there is little consensus for compromise. How surprising?

And, welcome to all the new potential millionaires who will make over $200,000 a year. One wonders if the President and his supporters in Congress understand the American people and how the American economy operates.

Then there is the current $35,000 estate tax exemption which could be escalated to $5 million dollars. Wake up and smell the coffee, financial planners and tax attorneys. If this concept passes the Congress, and becomes law, your business may boom, and add to the group of millionaires in those fields of endeavor.

The government giveth and taketh away. It appears that they plan to take away long standing tax incentives and give more money to those who are dependent on government largess. This has been an agenda of the President since he was elected.

Fiscal brinksmanship is not in the best interest of the country and only adds more uncertainty for a stock market that is already very uncertain. The New York Stock Exchange lost 2 percent of its value last week and has fallen below 1300. Real consternation and uncertainty has already occurred.

The leaders of both parties will caucus with their respective members on Sunday afternoon.

Regarding the passage of a new five year farm bill which is long overdue, it appears a six month or one year extension is all that American agriculture can expect. How disappointing.

Let us hope for the sake of our country that common sense prevails and elected representatives act in a decisive and intelligent manner.

Congress must remember they work for the people and should do the people’s business in an expeditious reasonable way.

Southern Maryland Stuffed Ham – A Holiday Tradition

There are a lot of stories to tell about our Christmas holiday – the group song, Christmas eve’s walk in the snow, the vegan Mennonite fondue supper (what? yes), the emergency vet appointment in Delaware.

Or some of the zillion stories about our 16 family members – from ten to eighty-three, each so dear and special. The piles of presents and delicious desserts, duets and violin and piano. Etc.

But all I can think about right now is the stuffed ham.

stuffed ham

My sister brought some Southern Maryland Stuffed Ham – a cultural culinary staple from St. Mary’s County – on “the other side”. It’s a long-standing winter favorite in the southern reaches of tidewater Maryland.

Slits cut in a circular fashion from the center out of a large ham are stuffed with a spicy kale and fish pepper mixture. Then the ham is wrapped and boiled. When cool, the long slices of pink ham with spirals of hot greens are a spicy wintertime treat. You close your eyes when you eat it.

These recipes are treasured and the greens and peppers are mixed by hand, deep in huge bowls, by generation after generation of southern cooks. Everyone has their own blend, of course – of kale and collards and peppers and spice.  And that makes them endlessly desirable, since each offers its own version of deliciousness.

This one is from  McKay’s Grocery in California, MD – a longtime local St. Mary’s County grocery outlet. It’s an autumn – Thanksgiving through Christmas offering, which is yet another reason to love it – you can’t just find it any old day. It’s special.

Like tomatoes, sweet corn, hard crabs and blackberries, there’s a certain time of the year for Southern Maryland Stuffed Ham. And it’s over really soon.

Delicious. Grateful!

<This story was previously published on>


5 hours, 36 species, and 1536 birds

…found in one little section of Talbot County early in December, during the Talbot Bird Club‘s Christmas Bird Count. The count is going on all over, of course, and the data we collected will be added to the national count. These are the data that inform how climate change, for instance, is affecting bird and animal species.

I noticed the bird count on the internet, and connected online with Les Roslund, Talbot birder and Treasurer of the Talbot Bird Club. It was cool to be a part of it – and once again, I was incredibly lucky and met a wonderful teacher.

research vehicle

les roslund

I met up with Les Roslund at the top of the Bozman road this morning at 7am – it was dark. He had a clipboard, boots, a hat and his eyes shined with a warm smile. We started by listening there, by the side of the road – listening for owls. Our team was responsible for the northern part of the Bozman-Neavitt peninsula, and Les had gained permission to bird on a number of private properties.

We stopped at some terrific waterfront properties. The first was a farm on Harris Creek that has perhaps the area’s only collection of Icelandic sheep who trotted over to say hello. They were beautiful animals.

icelandic sheep

Using a powerful scope that could bring tiny ducks into sight a half mile away, we counted. Or, rather – Les counted, and I recorded. We listened and watched.

He talked about birds, and showed and taught and shared for 5 and a half hours. Les knows birds. At the end of our session, we had counted 1356 birds encompassing 46 different species. That’s a lot! But these numbers are typical for the local bird count.


A kind and gentle teacher, Les gave me a peek into the birding world that I never saw. Sure, I watch the birds at my feeder, and can identify the basic backyard birds that anyone else can. But on that day, I learned a little about how to listen.

looking up

My brother-in-law Mont knows birds by their song and call, and will, while walking through the woods, occasionally cock his head and say “eastern peewee” or some such thing. And I wouldn’t have heard a thing at all. Loons and tundra swans are easy to hear, of course, but tiny birdsong high in the trees is something different.

looking across harris creek

But after that day, I’ll hear it.

I may not be able to identify it….

but, I will be listening.

Cool. Thanks, Les!

The total number for the Talbot Bird Count was 101 species and 87,000+ species. That number included sightings of 23,180 red-winged blackbirds and 38,263 Canada Geese. Les reports that the Talbot Bird Club was pleased with the results, which were good, in part, due to the mild weather.

As usual, numbers were up for some species, and down for others. The birders, like many Talbot residents, recognized that many of the migratory ducks and geese have not yet arrived. As the temperatures drop, we can expect to see more migratory birds arrive each day.

For more information about the Talbot Bird Club – see their website.

Here is the list of birds that were counted in our little neck of Talbot County (Les stayed out much longer than I, and picked up four more species and hundreds of individual birds.)

RESULTS for the Roslund-Bosin part of the Broad Creek Sector Count:

49 species

Canada Goose  1890

Tundra Swan  10

American Black Duck  26

Mallard  134

Surf Scoter  1

Long-tailed Duck  3

Bufflehead  82

Common Goldeneye  37

Ruddy Duck  2

Common Loon  7

Horned Grebe  3

Great Blue Heron  3

Turkey Vulture  5

Northern Harrier  1

Sharp-shinned Hawk  1

Bald Eagle  6

Ring-billed Gull  3

Herring Gull  7

Eastern Screech-Owl  1

Great Horned Owl  5

Belted Kingfisher  4

Red-bellied Woodpecker  6

Downy Woodpecker  8

Hairy Woodpecker  1

Northern Flicker  6

Merlin  1

Blue Jay  65

American Crow  20

Carolina Chickadee  12

Tufted Titmouse  15

Red-breasted Nuthatch  5

White-breasted Nuthatch  6

Carolina Wren  9

Eastern Bluebird  22

American Robin  30

Northern Mockingbird  9

European Starling  6

Cedar Waxwing  103

Yellow-rumped Warbler  7

Song Sparrow  47

Swamp Sparrow  2

White-throated Sparrow  22

Dark-eyed Junco  47

Northern Cardinal  17

Red-winged Blackbird  443

House Finch  10

Pine Siskin  5

American Goldfinch  30

House Sparrow  5


Poorer School Districts Tend to Have Higher Portions of Kids in Special Ed

ANNAPOLIS — In poorer public school districts in Maryland, the percentage of students receiving special education is disproportionately higher than in wealthier districts, and has been since early 2000.

It’s a nationwide trend that experts say isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since schools in low-income areas have few other ways to address poverty-related disadvantages that affect students’ learning abilities.

About 15 percent of students in Maryland’s top five poorest school districts received special education services last year, compared to about 10 percent in the five wealthiest districts, according to a Capital News Service analysis of the most recent Maryland Department of Education data.

Unlike labeling a child blind or deaf, other special education codes – particularly ‘learning disabled’ and ‘emotionally disturbed’ – aren’t as clearly defined and involve “some judgment and subjectivity,” said Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit educational organization.

Kids in poor areas struggle or act out in class “because of the challenges of poverty,” he said, and are more likely to get labeled.

Baltimore, the second poorest district in the state according to U.S. Census data, has nearly double the percentage of students – 16 percent – in special education than Howard County, the wealthiest district, with 8.6 percent.

Low-income kids enter kindergarten already behind, said Abigail Thernstrom, vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research group.

“Social class is a reality. There are student differences tied to social-class differences,” she said.

Parents reading to their children, making sure they eat a healthy breakfast and get enough sleep all affect a child’s learning ability, experts said.

“If you have a hungry kid in the classroom they can actually test for having a disability,” said Andrea Kalvesmaki, a medical anthropologist specializing in mental health disability at the Education Policy Institute, a nonprofit educational research and public policy group.

With less community support and fundraising power, schools in low-income areas shouldn’t be blamed for “flagging problems they see … That is their only means for helping,” she said. Placing a student in special education because of poverty-related challenges “can actually help them so they can get extra services.”

Thernstrom said this doesn’t mean students are being mislabeled.

“These kids come in way behind,” and schools are responding to that, she said.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990, last amended in 2004, governs special education and states a child cannot be deemed disabled if the “determinant factor is lack of proper reading instruction, lack of math instruction or limited English fluency.”

There’s no way to tell if a school is unfairly labeling students, said Debra Gardner, communications specialist for the Maryland State Education Association, a union that lobbies for teacher and student needs. “But it does raise a red flag when you see a trend in a specific area, school or neighborhood.”

The root problem is that poverty-related disadvantages are complex and hard to correct, especially through school systems.

“The important variables here are social class and parental education,” Thernstrom said. “Is the state working with parents in charge to create a better environment for academic learning?”

Staff commonly visit families’ homes and make suggestions, sometimes on “very basic parenting skills in combination with” special education, but they can’t force a family to comply, said Judy Pattik, special education coordinator for Howard County Public Schools.

Pattik doesn’t know why her district’s numbers are so low, but speculates the county’s strong early intervention program – beginning special education as soon as possible, ideally before kids are even in school – and extra help in regular classes, keeps kids from struggling.

Howard County resident Kim McKay has a 16-year-old son with autism enrolled in public high school. He’s received special education through the Howard County Public School System since he was 15 months old.

McKay said her son now takes all of his classes in regular classrooms with regular students where teachers adjust lessons for him as needed.

She said she was lucky to already live in a district with “one of the best” public special education systems in the state. If she didn’t, she would have sought services elsewhere.

“There are a couple counties where I feel like the system is set up not against families, but not about families … There seems to be more concern about budget than about what kids need,” she said.

Some counties have worked to change their numbers.

About 10 years ago, Allegany County, Maryland’s third poorest district at the time, had the highest proportion of special education students in the state – 18 percent.

Concerned Allegany school officials went to the Maryland Department of Education, which contracted a consulting firm to analyze the school system, as well as those in Washington and Garrett counties that sit on either side of Allegany.

The firm concluded that while there was “insufficient conclusive evidence” the county was over-identifying students, certain factors contributed to the high percentage.

These included a continuing decline in overall school enrollment, which, when the number of kids receiving special education isn’t declining, makes it hard to keep percentages down. They also pointed to “several social and economic factors,” like high drug use and low median incomes, as well as other factors.

Allegany schools made changes in special and general education, such as enhancing pre-school programs and offering extra help in regular classes.

Since then, the percentage of special education students has declined to about 13 percent, the fourth highest percentage in the state. Allegany is Maryland’s poorest district.

“Funding does not drive services. Anything a child needs … we must deliver,” said Marcella Franczkowski, assistant state superintendent of the division of special education and early intervention services at the Maryland Department of Education.

Schools must meet the same federal and state standards, but counties can deliver services in ways that best fit their demographics, which could account for disparities across the state, she said.

“You could not possibly expect services to be delivered the same way in Allegany County as in Baltimore County,” she said. “With the distance between schools and homes, things are very different.”

Educators and analysts agree early intervention and mainstreaming are the best routes to ensure kids get help and eventually don’t need extra services.

Maryland is one of six states that provide special education from birth to 21 years old, and has been focusing on mainstreaming and early intervention over the past several years, Franczkowski said.

Statewide, the number of special education students has declined from 12.2 percent in 2003 to 11.4 percent in 2011, below the national average of 13 percent, which, Franczkowski said, “reflects our work.”

But to shrink the disparity, people must talk about learning disability and poverty together, Kalvesmaki said. We “can’t take poverty out of the equation.”


Food Friday: Happy Hogmanay, and a Happy New Year!

_FF_hogmanay2012_slideHogmanay is how the Scots celebrate the end of the old year and the beginning of the New. They take to the streets and stretch the celebration over a couple of days, which may only be for the most hardy. There are outdoor concerts, fireworks, bonfires, street parties and lots of traditional food and drink. A Winter Festival sounds like a lot of good old-fashioned pagan fun.

Traditional Hogmanay foods include haggis (of course), shortbread and Tipsy Laird Trifle made with Scotch Whisky instead of the usual sherry. I like a holiday that isn’t shy about its sweets. On Christmas Eve, Miss Morning Glory made some Sticky Toffee Pudding for us. I cannot believe that I have gone through life without tasting Sticky Toffee Pudding before! What a delight!

I am reading Nigel Slater’s book “Eating for England” right now. It is a frothy little book of short essays that describe some fascinating English food eccentricities. Slater dwells with some affection over desserts and sweets. It must be the time of the year – I am longing for sweets. Read it when you want to blow your diet (or your New Year’s resolutions):{A69E1743-399C-48E2-AA16-848E724D9A77}

We love Scottish shortbread any time of the year. Luckily we made a plethora of it for Christmas, so should have a good supply of it left if you want to stop by and wish us a “Guid New Year” on your way during the Torchlight Processional. We’ll all be dressed up and daring one another to dive into the River Forth during the Queensferry Loony Dook. (Actually, I will probably be in my jimjams and ready for bed around 10:00, but I wish you all the best!)

3/4 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350° F.
Mix the butter and 1 cup of sugar together until they are just combined. Add the vanilla. In another bowl, sift together the flour and salt, then add to the butter and sugar mixture. Mix on low speed until the dough starts to come together. Roll the dough out on a surface dusted with flour, and shape into a flat disk. Cool in the fridge for about half an hour.

Roll the dough 1/2-inch thick and cut with a pizza cutter or a knife. Prick the dough with a fork to make lovely little pointillistic designs. Place the cookies on an ungreased baking sheet and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the edges begin to brown. Allow them to cool before gobbling.

I am sticking to the traditional Champagne this New Year’s Eve. I did have to do some research to see what Ilsa was drinking with Victor Laszlo in “Casablanca.” And this is it; the Champagne Cocktail. Hmmm. I don’t think I am sophisticated enough to try bitters in my Moet.

Champagne Cocktail
4 ounces chilled Champagne
2 drops bitters
1 sugar cube
1 ounce Cognac
Drop the bitters onto sugar cube. Drop sugar cube in a Champagne flute. Add Cognac, and top with Champagne. Listen for the Lone Piper and have yourself a Happy New Year!

Here is the recipe for Tipsy Laid Trifle. Yumsters!

Auld Lang Syne
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne!

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne.
We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.


New Federal School Lunch Program Leaves Students Hungry

WASHINGTON – Some public school students across the country have been vocal about their disapproval of the new federal school lunch program, but the problem may go beyond taste with many Maryland students reporting that they leave the cafeteria still hungry, a Capital News Service survey found.

Nearly 90 percent of Maryland public school students responding to a CNS survey said they are sometimes or always left unfulfilled by their school lunch. This follows a national trend that has become publicized since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was implemented nationwide this year.

The federal act required public schools to have certain nutritional guidelines in place, such as calorie restrictions, at the start of the 2012-2013 school year in order to receive additional lunch aid.

Capital News Service created a non-scientific survey using Google forms and distributed it to about 450 schools throughout the state by posting it on Facebook pages associated with the schools. The survey received 90 responses in about a month.

The majority of the students surveyed reported that the new lunch restrictions have left them hungry for more.

More than half of the survey responses came from middle-school children, including one Accokeek Academy eighth-grader who wrote, “I am still hungry after eating the lunch because it is not enough carbs and protein.”

Hunger is also a problem for a Tuscarora Middle School fourth-grader according to his mother.

“Our son buys two (lunches) just to have enough food,” she said.  “At least when they got tater tots, they had enough food. Now the menu choices have been marginal, and rarely anything the kids eat.”

A typical lunch at Tuscarora Middle School and other schools across the state consist of foods like chicken nuggets, spaghetti with meat sauce or cheese pizza, paired with two fruit options and two vegetable options.

In Charles County there was a complete overhaul of their lunch menu two years as a part of the HealthierUS School Challenge and now students are used to the healthier food choices, Bill Kreuter, the county supervisor of food services, said.

“In our system, students are taking more fruits and vegetables and they aren’t complaining about being hungry,” he said.

One of the keys to their success is the students’ ability to choose their food.

“The students are taking what they want (and) aren’t being forced to have what they don’t want,” he added.

Higher quality food leads to less hunger, according to Maryland health coach Gina Rieg.

“Quality of food is much more significant, especially to be nourished, sustained and satisfied from a meal,” she said.

Feelings of dissatisfaction with school lunch have been voiced across the country with students in a Pittsburgh suburb going on strike in late August and starting the trending topic “BrownBagginIt” on Twitter, encouraging students to pack their lunches instead of eating the school lunch.

Students in Kansas protested lyrically by creating a music video, “We Are Hungry,” a parody of the song “We Are Young” by Fun, showing students who are unable to complete their daily tasks due to extreme hunger. The video has received more than 1 million views on YouTube.


While students have spoken out about their post-lunch hunger, it is not something that is exclusive to those still in school.

“Being hungry after a meal is very common for many age groups, not just these younger age groups,” Rieg said. “However, common does not equal normal. It’s common because the majority of us follow the mainstream health advice that we have been led to believe is true and healthy. Unfortunately, there are many health and food myths out there that form our eating habits and thus trickles into school lunches as well.”

Rieg said healthy fats are just as essential to a healthy diet as fruits and vegetables are.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, spearheaded by first lady Michelle Obama, focuses on improving child nutrition by increasing the availability of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and setting calorie and sodium maximums. Schools have to meet the guidelines set in order to receive financial reimbursement for the meals distributed to students.

Previously the requirement for fruits and vegetables was one-half to three-quarters of a cup of fruit and vegetables combined per day, and now three-quarters of a cup of vegetables is required per day, in addition to one-half cup of fruit.  There were also calorie minimums, allowing at least 633 to 825 calories depending on grade level, and now there are minimums and maximums, with the maximum ranging from 650 calories to 850 calories depending on the grade.

The new program has also gone from simply encouraging whole grains to requiring that at least half the grains served are whole grains, with all grains being whole in July 2014.  Sodium maximums have also been implemented, which will range from 1,230 milligrams for elementary school students to 1,420 milligrams for high school students by 2014, when there previously were none.

Meeting these guidelines is the main goal when planning the lunches in Prince George’s County, where nearly half of the CNS survey responses came from, according to Joan Shorter, director of food and nutrition services in the county.

Although taste and quantity of food is considered, “primarily we must ensure that the menu meets the requirements for a reimbursable meal,” she said in an email.

Crafting a menu to meet the guidelines can be a chore.

“It’s challenging to make sure the right combinations of food are offered in the right portion sizes per age group,” she said.

While portion size and calories are important, it should not be how proper nourishment is determined, according Rieg.

“I don’t believe it’s a matter of calorie counting at all,” Rieg said in an email. “When we try to determine what’s enough for a lunch, or any meal, focusing on the calorie count, we miss the most important aspect of food, quality. I truly believe that most of us, especially our children, are undernourished, not underfed.”

Rieg believes serving more nutrient-rich foods instead of “200 calories of plain broccoli or 200 calories of skinless chicken breast” can solve the hunger problem in schools.

“I am not saying that vegetables shouldn’t be a part of our meals,” she said, “but if school lunches contained more sustaining and nourishing foods and ingredients, such as avocados and food –vegetables, meat and fish,—being cooked liberally in coconut oil and other satisfying saturated fats, I believe post-lunch hunger would occur much less.”



Silent Wings, Precise Hearing Help Owls Rule the Night

I awoke in my tent startled. Something cried out in the woods and just as quickly the cry was replaced by the cool, eerie call of a great horned owl. Then silence. I listened intently but no other sounds punctuated the dark night air. Whatever small mammal was scurrying around my camp was no more and I drifted back to sleep.
Because of their nocturnal nature, owls have been viewed as bad omens or messengers of misfortune — or even death. In spite of their formidable appearance and ghostly calls, owls are unique among birds and are particularly valuable predators. A single barn owl can eat more than a thousand mice in a year!

Screen Shot 2012-12-28 at 9.13.43 AMOwls stalk their prey without a sound. A modification to their feathers makes this possible. Their wings have downy fringes along the stiff flight feathers that muffle sound as an owl swoops in unnoticed.

Owls probably have the most acute hearing of any bird. They can hear sounds 10 times fainter than a person can detect. Several features of an owl’s ear make this possible. Owls have an extra-large ear opening surrounded by deep, soft feathers that funnel sound. Furthermore, the feathers over the ear, the auriculars, are modified to be loose and airy.

Owls also have a moveable flap of skin controlled by muscles around the ear opening. This flap protects the ear and concentrates sound waves coming from behind.

Many owls also have asymmetrical ear openings. The opening in one ear will be higher than in the other ear. A noise coming from above will sound slightly louder in the ear with the higher ear opening. This allows the owl to pinpoint its prey accurately.

Finally, the owl’s entire face acts as an outer ear. The face is shaped like two satellite dishes that funnel sound to the ears. The compact facial feathers aid in the funneling process. Some owls have ear tufts, feathers sticking up on the top of both sides of the head. Ear tufts do nothing to improve hearing. Ear tufts help the owl appear larger, helping to ward off any possible predators. Owls are often characterized as eared (those with visible feather ear tufts) or earless (without feather ear tufts).

In general, all birds have relatively large eyes compared to the size of their head. But owls have the largest eyes. Their eyes are so large that there is little room in their skulls for eye muscles. Thus an owl turns its head, sometimes as much as 270 degrees, rather than move its eyes, to follow an object.

It’s been said that the difference between the hunter and the hunted is evident in the eyes. The hunted have eyes on the sides of their heads to obtain a wide field of view. Hunters have eyes on the front of their heads to increase depth perception. Owls have the most frontally positioned eyes of any animal.

Contrary to popular belief, owls have excellent vision both in daylight and at night. Their pupils are huge at night, letting in great quantities of light, and in daytime shrink down to the size of a pinpoint. Their eyes are 10 times as light-sensitive as human eyes. This is due the concentration of light sensitive rods in the retina, but it is at the expense of color-defining cones. So, although they see well in dim light, owls see little color.

Because they swallow their prey whole or nearly so, owls regurgitate pellets containing undigested parts of their prey — bones, feathers or fur. They eject this matter in the form of a hard fur or feathered pellet. By dissecting pellets, scientists are able to determine just what types of animals an owl is eating. Even if they eat insects, the pellet will contain the hard exoskeleton.

There are several species of owls native to the Chesapeake Bay region. Probably the most familiar of these is the great horned owl. This large brown owl is noted by its large yellow eyes, white throat patch and large ear tufts. It can be recognized by its call — a series of low hoots. Another eared owl is the long-eared owl, which is similar in appearance to the great horned except its ears tufts are closer together and it is smaller and slimmer. The eastern screech owl is a small (8 inches long) eared owl with color varying from rust to gray. Its call is a long quivering whistle.

Of the earless owls, the barn owl is easily recognized by its light colors and heart-shaped face. Aptly named, a barn owl nests in barns, abandoned buildings and tree cavities. Its song is a long raspy screech. The barred owl is often referred to as the “hoot owl.” Its call is made of nine hoots that sound like the phrase who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all? The northern saw-whet owl is the smallest of the eastern owls (7 inches long) and is often found roosting in dense evergreens or in thickets. Its call is a series of toots or whistles.

Owls have been the subject of much misunderstanding, superstition and fantasy. Over the centuries, people’s views of these wonderful birds have changed. They have been symbols of doom and evil as well as knowledge and wisdom.

Their importance to the environment has also changed. As more and more land is developed, many natural predators are lost.

Left unchecked, rodents and other small mammals can become pests. Owls continue to play a significant role in an ecosystem by controlling these populations.

Putting ecological benefits aside, though, I just enjoy falling asleep to the haunting call of an owl on a cold winter night.

By Kathy Reshetiloff


Farm Notes: Rural Innovations and Realities by Fletcher Hall

Recently, I attended an event sponsored by the United States Chamber of Commerce, in Washington, D.C.

The title of this event was “Agriculture, Growing Innovation and Opportunities”. The principal speakers were U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak, and Gregory Page, Chairman and CEO of Cargill.

There has been quite a transformation occurring in rural America and in production farming. For instance there has been an 87 per cent increase in Farmers Markets since 2008. There are now over 200 food hubs across the country that allow an aggregation of locally produced items, making it easier for an institutional purchaser such as a hospital, a university, a school or a prison to be able to purchase locally grown products.

The connection between the farmer and the consumer is important because too few Americans today understand agriculture and our food supply system. Also, there are rapidly diminishing numbers of members of Congress that have any real working of agricultural issues and farm practices..

When the Department of Agriculture was established by President Abraham Lincoln, 97 per cent of the population was rural based. In those days most people knew factually what agriculture was about.

However, today that is not the case. Even when using the most liberal definition of farmer, as used by the USDA, “anyone who sells over a thousand dollars worth of product is considered a farmer. This sure sounds like a pretty liberal definition to me. Today 2.3 million people fall under that definition, less than one percent of the U.S. population. Less than one percent of the current U. S. population produces 75 to 80 percent of what we consume and vast quantities of what the U.S. exports.

These facts tell quite a story. Many people in America, today, do not fully understand agriculture and its importance to our economy and way of life.

The United States is a food secure nation. Agriculture is part of our national security and any nation which can feed itself is a stronger nation. In the world today almost all other nations are dependent on other nations to provide large parts of their food supply Today, direct to consumer sales opportunities, a multi-million endeavor, is developing as rapidly as many other components of U. S. Agriculture.

These facts and marketing trends lead me to wonder if there can be a renaissance of the produce (truck crop) industry on the Eastern Shore.

In spite of the innovations, growing domestic economic importance of agriculture and record export trends, the United States does not have a new farm bill. And, there are many doubts we will have one this year, and the new Congress’s actions will be anyone’s guess.

There is also a need for a common sense, workable immigration bill to pass Congress. That has not happened yet. The immigration influx, especially from Mexico, has diminished significantly due to our own economic problems. Many of the immigrant workers entering the United States find work in production agriculture and add diversity to the face of a dwindling rural America.

It is important for the agriculture industry, trade associations, agribusiness, and American business in general to do a better job of communicating the significance of American agriculture, today and in the future.

It was hearting to see the United States Chamber of Commerce and its foundation give such attention to American agriculture.

Now, let’s get a farm bill.

Ask the Plant and Pest Professor: How to Protect a Fig and Propagate Violets

Question #1: My mother always admires the African violet I have sitting on my kitchen windowsill. I have heard they are pretty easy to propagate. Can you please tell me how I can go about doing this? I would love to give her one.

Screen Shot 2012-12-28 at 9.19.22 AMAnswer #1: African violets can be easily propagated. The most common method is by leaf cuttings. Start with moistened well-drained potting soil; look for one specifically labeled for African violets.  Cut off a healthy, mature leaf, along with an inch or so of the stalk. Insert the leaf stem in potting mix about ½ -3/4 inches deep in a small container.  Encase the container in a plastic bag to make a mini greenhouse and place it in bright, filtered light. Water only if it looks like the potting media has dried out. Then be patient; it can take several weeks before you notice a clump of plantlets growing from the base of the leaf.  Remove from the plastic, begin to fertilize with a weak water-soluble fertilizer. When they grow to 1 ½- 2 ½ inches tall separate them from the mother leaf and repot individually in 2 – 2 ½ inch containers and treat as an adult plant.

Question #2:  We are losing many oak trees in the wooded area around my home. I was wondering if the emerald ash borer attacks other kinds of trees besides ash.  What could possibly be killing these mature trees?

Answer #2: Emerald ash borers are host specific and only attack ash trees.  Many hardwood trees, including oaks, have succumbed to the extremes in weather we have been experiencing for the past few years. Droughts, record breaking hot temperatures, periods of heavy rain, all cause trees to become stressed making them more susceptible to insect and disease problems. We have had many inquiries come into our Center from folks with similar concerns about their trees. Unfortunately there is not a good answer. If the wooded area is on your property you should try protecting any seedlings you may have growing from deer to encourage regrowth of your woods.

Question #3:  So far the winter has been fairly mild and I have not yet put protection around my fig tree. Do you think that is necessary?

Answer #3: Yes, winter protection of figs should be provided every winter especially if you live in the colder parts of the state and your fig tree is young. Unprotected wood will be killed at 10-15 degrees F.  Pin pliable branches to the ground and cover with burlap or a plastic tarp. Another recommended method is to cut your branches back to a height of 4-5 feet and then pile plastic bags filled with leaves around the plant to create a pyramid.  Then cover with burlap or plastic tarp that is held to the ground with rocks or landscape staples. All exposed wood should be covered. In the spring, remove the winter protection after the danger of frost has passed. Prune out ground suckers and any dead wood  at that time.


“Ask the Plant and Pest Professor” is compiled from phone and email questions asked the Home and Garden Information Center (HGIC), part of University of Maryland Extension, an educational outreach of the University of Maryland. To ask a home gardening or pest control question or for other help, go to  Or phone HGIC at 1-800-342-2507, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.  Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


Homestead Tax Credit Eligibility Deadline December 31

This is an important reminder to all Maryland homeowners that you only have until December 31, 2012 to file the Application for Homestead Tax Credit Eligibility to continue to be qualified for this property tax credit.  To find out if you have already filed the one-time application in the past five years, you should go to the Department’s website at and click on “Real Property Data Search”. Then click on the County name were your property is located and enter the Street address.