Ian Stewart

Sparrows are a mystery to most non-birders (and many birders too!) and it’s not hard to see why. The great majority of them are small, brown streaky birds that at this time of year are usually just glimpsed as they disappear into a tangle of undergrowth, so much so that sparrow sightings often get lumped into the catch-all category of ‘Little Brown Bird’ (hastily scribbled as ‘LBB’ in field notebooks from here to Alaska).

This is a great pity as sparrows are an under-appreciated group of birds in my opinion, and Delaware is awash with them during the winter because several species that breed as far away as northern Canada flood into our area and flock together with our resident sparrows. Tangled brush piles and weedy fields might not be attractive to an average human but they are very popular with sparrows who love to scuffle through them in search of seed as well as take cover in them if a hawk appears. On a good winter’s morning you might see more than half a dozen species of sparrow just by slowly walking along the edges of these brush piles and fields and waiting for them to appear.

A simple first step to identifying sparrows is to look at their breast as this lets you place them into one of two broad categories: those with streaked breasts and those with unstreaked breasts. The collage below is composed of sparrows banded during DNS’s Bird Conservation Program and up close you can see the differences between species in breast patterning, as well as the eyebrow stripes, moustaches and thin crown stripe found in many sparrows.

Top row (L to R). Song, Fox, Savannah 2nd row. Lincoln’s, Field, American Tree (showing ‘stickpin’ in breast) 3rd row. Swamp, Chipping (winter), Slate-colored Junco 4th row. White-crowned, White-throated (adult), White-throated (immature)

The collage below shows the diversity of sizes, shapes and colors seen in sparrows’ beaks. For example, the beak of Song Sparrows is intermediate in length and depth while Fox Sparrows have a short but stout beak and both Lincoln’s and Swamp Sparrows have long, thin beaks. Some sparrows have all-brown beaks while others have beaks that are gray (White-throated), orange (Field), pink (Junco) or jet black (Chipping Sparrow during the breeding season). The American Tree Sparrow has the most distinctive beak of all, being dark brown above but yellow below. There is also quite a lot of variation in the angle of the forehead, the size of the eye, and the curvature of the upper beak.

Top row (L to R). Song, Fox (with 2 ticks!) and Field 2nd row. Chipping (summer), Chipping (winter), Savannah 3rd row. Lincoln’s, Swamp, American Tree 4th row. White-throated, Slate-colored Junco, White-crowned (immature).

Hopefully these photographs have convinced you that sparrows are more different and beautiful than you had thought. My advice is to slowly explore the undergrowth on a crisp, still winter’s morning and try to get a good look at every species you see. Rest assured, you will be rewarded!

 

Autumn among the beeches

Ian Stewart

If life is getting you down or you’re feeling particularly stressed why not take a gentle afternoon stroll through a beech wood? Walking through a beech wood in the fall is a serene experience that will instantly melt away your troubles. And if you look closely, the beeches have a few surprises in store…..

The American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) is a fairly common tree across almost all of the eastern United States and is easily recognized by its smooth, pale gray bark and its above-ground ‘knees’ formed by the tops of its shallow roots. We have several stands of old, large beech trees around our DNS sites because early settlers tended to leave them alone as they often grow on hillsides which aren’t attractive sites for home building or farming, and also because their hard wood is difficult to cut.

At this time of year the ground beneath a beech wood is littered with a carpet of their golden leaves and if you wait long enough you will see a variety of mammals and birds rustling though them in search of fallen beech nuts. These distinctive triangular nuts emerge in pairs from their tough, furry husks when ripe and are beloved by deer, squirrels and Blue Jays and were apparently the favored food of the extinct Passenger Pigeon. Beech nuts are edible to humans once they have been peeled although they are apparently bitter and may even be toxic in large quantities so we do not recommend that you eat them.

Part of the reason beech woods are so attractive to walk through is that they are remarkably open, with very little understory of bushes or shrubs to navigate through. This is because beech trees are thought to be allelopathic, meaning they exude a chemical into the soil around them which inhibits the growth of other plants. Sometimes the only plant you see growing near a beech tree is a ring of ‘root sprouts’ growing around its trunk, which is a direct way through which beech trees spread in addition to their nuts.

Still, despite their placid outward appearance beech woods are tinged with intrigue. If you get down on your hands and knees you will notice that most of the trees have a circle of mysterious brown weedy stems around their base. These are known as Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) and are among a handful of plants that don’t photosynthesize but instead live parasitically by burrowing into the roots of beech trees and extracting their nutrients.

So please take the time to explore a beech wood this fall, but be sure to appreciate the small struggles going on underneath these giant trees!

By Shannon Giordano, Public Relations & Social Media Coordinator

Fall is a prime time for planting trees, and Delaware Nature Society has planted quite a few in the last three weeks. Planting trees in the fall can be the best time because the trees are going dormant for the winter and the ground is often very moist, which means when spring comes and the soil starts to warm, the trees will be ready to grow.

In the past several weeks, Delaware Nature Society has planted over 600 trees at three locations. On October 27 at Coverdale Farm Preserve, the planting of 12 enormous Red Oaks and Bicolor Oaks with 9 foot root balls and full canopies began. They were brought in one at a time by truck and are being placed in a section of field that is currently used for feed hay. This planting is part of Coverdale’s 10-year Master Plan. The field the trees were planted in will be turned into a grazing pasture that will house movable animal shelters. These trees were planted in a specific area in order to create a buffer for the Farm’s neighbors, and provide shade and forage for the livestock. All 12 of the trees have been put into the ground and other areas of the farm are designated for reforestation in the future. A big thank you goes to Hank Davis who not only funded the purchase of the trees, but hand selected the trees and is also funding their installation. Hank is a true champion of Coverdale Farm Preserve, and for that we are ever grateful.

Last weekend, two large tree planting events were held on Saturday morning. The first event took place at Middle Run Natural Area where approximately 150 volunteers helped to plant 400 trees. The tree planting is just one aspect of the biodiversity management project that Delaware Nature Society manages at Middle Run under contract with New Castle County. Jim White, DelNature’s Senior Fellow for Land Biodiversity Management, heads up the planting efforts each year. “We are working to increase the park’s forest habitat as well as to increase stream buffers next to Middle Run, which is a tributary of White Clay Creek,” says Jim. Increasing forest habitat provides food and shelter for a wide variety of native wildlife. Stream buffers slow down and filter pollutants and help to reduce erosion. Tree planting also has many other benefits, including making a positive impact on climate change. County Executive, Matthew Meyer also attended the event, lending a hand with the planting. Since 1991, thousands of volunteers have helped to plant about 55,000 trees at this New Castle County park, which is located near Paper Mill and Possum Park roads in Newark.

The second planting event last weekend was held at DuPont Environmental Education Center (DEEC). The Rotary Club of Wilmington planted 200 trees in the Russel Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge with staff from the DNREC Division of Fish and Wildlife.  The project was funded by members of the Rotary Club who donated $2,000 for the trees along with funding from DNREC. The tree planting is part of an effort over the past 20 years to restore the freshwater tidal marsh with native plants to provide habitat for waterfowl, song birds, deer, raccoon, beaver, and even river otter. The Rotary Club of Wilmington planted the trees as part of a challenge to all Rotary Clubs across the globe. International Rotary President, Ian H.S. Riseley challenged every Rotary club to make a difference by planting one tree for each of its members between the start of the Rotary year on July 1, 2017 and Earth Day on April 22, 2018.

A sincere thank you to everyone who was a part of each of these events!

by Dakin Hewlett, Watershed Education Coordinator

DEEC staff member tags and releases a Monarch Butterfly.

Visitors watch as a DEEC staff member tags and releases a Monarch Butterfly. Photo by John Harrod

Fall not only brings the oncoming burst of changing colors, but also marks the beginning of the monarch butterfly’s incredible migration to Mexico. The DuPont Environmental Education Center highlighted the butterfly’s unique journey at their 4th Annual Marsh & Monarch Celebration on September 23rd. Blue skies and sunshine greeted over 200 people who came out to celebrate the tagging and releasing of 8 monarchs. Leading up to the event, DEEC staff and visitors watched and waited as the reared butterflies transformed from caterpillar to chrysalis and finally to beautiful monarchs ready for release.

When the highly anticipated release date came, eager groups of visitors gathered on the boardwalk with a DEEC staff member to learn about monarchs and their important relationship to the milkweed plant. Adult monarch butterflies lay their eggs on the plant and the caterpillars then eat the milkweed as their sole food source. If you want to attract more monarchs to your garden, planting milkweed is a great way to do just that!

Each butterfly was then tagged with a special tracking sticker for research being done at the University of Kansas. Tagging helps monitor monarch migration patterns and the overall health of the population. Finally, the moment came that we had all been waiting for…A few lucky kids became wide-eyed as a butterfly was placed on their outstretched finger and took a few steps while deciding whether it was ready to take flight. Each time a butterfly took off the crowd clapped and cheered with enthusiasm as the magnitude of the 2,000-mile journey sunk in.

Canoeing the pond.

Canoeing the pond. Photo by John Harrod

Visitors also spent the day enjoying free, interactive activities throughout the marsh. Adults and kids alike enjoyed an on-the-water experience canoeing the pond, learning basic paddling skills, and attempting to navigate the water without getting stuck in the plants.

Many chose to get their feet wet while dip-netting for aquatic animals such as dragonfly larvae, scuds, and small fish. Dip-netting is not only a fun way to explore the pond, but is also a great tool to use when measuring water quality. By studying the biodiversity of the pond, staff members at DEEC can better understand the condition of the water. Guest staff from Stroud Water Research Center echoed that sentiment by providing visitors with a chance to conduct their own water quality tests. Participants turned scientists, learned how to test for pH levels, temperature, turbidity, nitrates, and conductivity with hands on experiments like the one shown below.

A curious visitor uses a turbidity tube to test the clarity of the pond water.

A curious visitor uses a turbidity tube to test the clarity of the pond water. Photo by John Harrod

Inside the nature center many other activities were underway such as “Zuumba like an Animal,” on the 4th floor. If you happened to saunter upstairs you were met with a group of kids hopping around the room like frogs or belting out animal sounds at the top of their lungs.  The 3rd floor stayed jam-packed all day with arts and crafts tables, a bike & kayak raffle sponsored by the Alliance for Watershed Education, and interpreters sharing all things marsh. The “Snapper Lab” on the 1st floor displayed many live animals that call the refuge home such as a black ratsnake, snapping turtle, and green frog. On the way out visitors stopped by to chat with Delaware Nature Society’s Habitat Stewards and left carrying armfuls of free milkweed to plant in their own gardens for the next generation of monarchs. Thank you to all who came out to celebrate and see you next year!

 

Free milkweed plants and art projects to take home after a wonderful day at the marsh.

Free milkweed plants and art projects to take home after a wonderful day at the marsh. Photo by John Harrod