Spanish flu epidemic raged 100 years ago

This video comes courtesy of the Cecil County Public Library, where the talk was given.


More than 100 years ago, the Spanish flu epidemic struck worldwide, leaving millions dead. Even the small towns of Maryland and Delaware were impacted by deaths and quarantine efforts. This talk provides an overview of the fight against the flu on the homefront during World War I.

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Returning ospreys have become rite of spring

High atop the Chesapeake City bridge, a pair of ospreys has returned to its nest, just as the birds have done each spring for the last several years.

These birds of prey have a hawk eye’s view of the town and canal below. Perched more than 200 feet above the water, they seem oblivious to the rush of traffic and boats below.

It’s an unusual place for these fish hawks to nest.  Ospreys prefer dead trees along the waterfront, utility poles or even pilings rising the county’s tidal rivers. Their high perch had some onlookers confusing them with their more rare and famous cousins, the peregrine falcon.

More than 10 years ago, when the birds first appeared, I invited local bird expert over to the backyard to help identify the birds.

“Any bird of prey is a good bird,” said Charlie Gant, who had been watching birds and hawks in Cecil County for decades. On that visit, he was able to positively identify the birds as ospreys. The birds have returned each spring since then. We can usually tell because of the noise. They tend to screech a lot, as if they are annoyed. Once the baby birds appear, that screeching multiplies.

Home sweet home at the top of the arch.

He explained that ospreys are not that unusual in the area.  At last count, he knew of seven osprey nests within a mile of his home on the Elk River.

Ospreys feed almost entirely on fish, although they might snag the occasional duckling or other small creature. In the canal, that means a steady diet of perch and catfish, perhaps with an eel or rockfish thrown in. The birds will hover over the water and then plunge down to spear fish in their sharp talons. They sometimes get carried away in their fishing, Gant said, latching onto a huge carp or rockfish that literally pulls the light-boned birds underwater.

This steady diet of fish was almost the undoing of the osprey. Not so long ago, these large raptors were a rare sight, much like eagles and falcons.  The culprit was DDT, a pesticide that had entered the ecosystem with devastating effect. Once DDT built up in an osprey’s system from eating contaminated fish, the eggs it laid had thin shells that cracked ruinously. The birds were in danger of disappearing from the Chesapeake Bay area. Since the banning of DDT in 1972, ospreys and other raptors have made a steady comeback.

“They’re fairly plentiful here,” Gant said.

But no so plentiful as to be ignored.  The ospreys on the bridge make constant hunting trips over the canal. Their nest is barely visible on the bridge’s highest arch as an untidy bundle of driftwood. One day last week, a bald eagle soared far above the bridge, causing the ospreys to swoop around their nest in alarm, making shrill cries.  Bald eagles are known for stealing fish that the hard-working osprey have caught. The eagle flew on, leaving the smaller hawks alone. The ospreys then settled back into the nest, their heads just visible above the rim of the bridge arch. Motorists on Route 213 can get a distant glimpse of the nest as they approach the bridge from Elkton. The birds and their home are best seen from the levee road along the canal.

During his early spring visit, there were no young yet in the nest, but Gant expected young hawks by around June 1.  The parents would then be busy feeding their young chicks.  “They’re going to be looking for fish constantly.”

Neighbors have nicknamed the ospreys Del and CC, a sort of play on their chosen home above the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal in Chesapeake City.

According to Gant, ospreys migrate to Florida or even South America each fall.  They return to their nests in Cecil County around St. Patrick’s Day.  (The birds have, in fact, returned each year almost on the same day.) Most return to the same nest year after year.

The nest on top of the busy bridge might be an unusual location, but it is a nice bit of real estate for an osprey.

“They want a view of the water where they will hunt,” Gant said.   “You couldn’t ask for a better view than that.”

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Math Bird interviewed in The Big Thrill

The new issue of The Big Thrill is out, and in it, there’s an interview by Your Correspondent with Math Bird, the Welsh crime writer. Math and I spent about 40 minutes back in September chatting by Skype about his writing. Something that stood out from that interview, besides getting a chance to know Math a bit better, was that he and his wife live on the Dee Estuary in Wales. This waterway creates a boundary between England and Wales. 

Just a couple of days after interviewing Math, my wife and I were watching an episode of a BBC show called “Escape to the Country” on Netflix when the show focused on a couple looking to move to Wales to a house overlooking—the guess it—the Dee. Strange coincidence, considering that I’d never heard of the Dee until a couple of days before.

Math is a great writer, and you can read more about him—and Wales—in this article.

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If you haven’t tried an audiobook, listen up!

It seems like readers everywhere—or maybe that should be listeners—are really getting into audiobooks. Why is that? I think that a huge factor is technology. It’s so easy now to listen to an audiobook. Simply click on a title and download a sample or the book itself to your phone or tablet. Pop in your earbuds, and off you go to ancient Rome, or Nantucket, or heck, a WWII battlefield!

I have surprised myself by discovering that I also enjoy listening to books in this way, simply because it is so convenient.

I remember when listening to an audiobook wasn’t so easy. In fact, I distinctly recall listening to an Ed McBain novel while stripping wallpaper and then painting one of the upstairs bedrooms in our old house. This was a book on cassette tape, played over a boombox. It always seemed like when I was up on the ladder, the tape ended! I was always juggling tapes, trying to find the right order. If I missed some of the story due to the wallpaper steamer hissing too much, it was a pain to rewind and find that spot again.

CDs were a little better, but there was still the problem of juggling the 8 or 10 CDs in a typical audiobook. Also, CDs were OK for the car, but still not terribly portable. 

With your smartphone, it’s all right there! One especially cool feature is that if I am reading a book using the Kindle app on my phone, and then I drive somewhere and listen to the audio version, the device magically syncs and picks up where I left off in the story, whether I am listening or reading. 

Of course, it’s very easy to take along a book when out for a walk. However, I have to admit that I do love a good podcast when out for a walk. Podcasts may be a topic for another day!

Someone mentioned to me recently how he listens to books on planes and in coffee shops. These are both noisy places, but when he puts on those headphones, he is transported to another time and place.

As a writer, I find it interesting how the performance of the book can add a new dimension to the story. The way that a line is delivered, or the pacing of dialogue, can take me by surprise. It might not be how I would have read the story on the page. Of course, a good narrator can make or break a novel for listeners. It takes quite a talented person to perform a novel, for make no mistake, it is a performance. As a general rule, I don’t think that the authors themselves tend to do a very good job because they are not trained voice actors. 

Three of my novels have received the audiobook treatment to date. Give them a listen at the links below!

Iron Sniper

Ghost Sniper

Ardennes Sniper

Red Sniper

One of my favorite recent listens has been the Jefferson Tayte series by Steve Robinson. The main character is a professional genealogist who solves mysteries by what the family tree reveals. He has a whole slew of these novels out now. Generally, Tayte’s cases take him to England. There are those who would rather that some family secrets stay in the past—that’s an example what puts Tayte in terrible danger. Who knew that genealogy could be so exciting? I have tried reading the books, but there is something about the delivery of the story in an audiobook that elevates the level of excitement.

Unfortunately, all of us occupy a busy world that doesn’t leave us much space or time for stretching out in the hammock and reading a proper book. Audiobooks are a way to absorb a novel or nonfiction book in new ways. Give them a try. You may surprise yourself by enjoying the experience. I know that I have!

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First Friday in Havre de Grace!

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