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All posts for the month November, 2008

By:  The Unknown Astronomer

When naturalists look to the sky, it’s usually to spot birds.

For at least the next few evenings, though, I encourage you to look beyond the birds to watch a beautiful celestial event unfold.

If you look low in the southwest at dusk tonight you will see two bright planets:  Venus, blazing just above the handle of the “teapot” star group (sinking spout-first into the horizon) in the constellation Sagittarius; and Jupiter, a little higher than Venus and a bit less brilliant.

Over the next few days, Venus will creep closer and closer to Jupiter, joined in the chase by a very low, razor-thin crescent moon on 11/29.  On the following evening the two planets will be a mere 2 degrees apart and the moon will have closed to within a few degrees of the pair.  By 12/1, moon, Venus, and Jupiter will be at their closest to one another, forming a lovely, compact trio that should fit within many binocular fields.  Good binoculars held steady, or a small telescope, will also show you something unusual about the appearance of the planet Venus itself.  What do you see? 

Try to get out on subsequent evenings and watch as Venus s-l-o-w-l-y overtakes Jupiter, and the waxing moon leapfrogs across the sky, leaving both planets behind.

Are the moon and planets really performing this sweet celestial dance?  What is  unusual about Venus’s appearance?  Post the answer(s) if you know; otherwise, keep one eye on the sky and one eye out for the next appearance of the Unknown Astronomer.

Unknown Astronomer

Unknown Astronomer

By Jim White, Associate Director, Land and Biodiversity

 

On 14 November 2008 I along with Jeff and Liz Gordon and a few other friends mounted an expedition into the Northeast State of Tampaulipas, Mexico. Our goal was to scout for Jeff’s upcoming Delaware Nature Society trip in February. After getting our paperwork in order we drove south from San Benito, Texas, crossing the Rio Grande and into Mexico. We occupied ourselves by spotting Scissor – tailed Flycatchers, Loggerhead Shrikes and Harris’ Hawks on roadside power lines as we rolled along through miles of dry agricultural lands.  It didn’t take long though for us to see our destination on the distant horizon – the mountains of the Sierra Madre Oriental.  These lush green  mountains and the incredible biodiversity they contain are the northernmost extension of tropical America. The area is within an easy day drive (only a couple hundred miles) south of the U.S border, about the distance from Ashland to Washington, DC . We arrived at our base in the small picturesque town of Gomes Farias. Tucked in a high valley on the side of the mountains, Gomes Farias is perfectly located, allowing us to make day excursions to the nearby cloud forest of the El Cielo Bioshere Preserve or the tropical lowlands and dry scrubland below.  

 

Each day we ventured out early, making our way along well-marked paths searching for tropical wildlife. Jeff’s incredible skills at finding and identifying birds allowed us to observe many species that are either found only rarely in the US or not at all.  Birds like Ringed, Amazon, and Green Kingfishers, Brown Jays, Blue-crowned Motmots, Roadside Hawks, and Bat Falcons (photo below) were relatively easily observed. Others like Tampaulipas Yellowthroat, Mottled Owl, Barred Antshrike, Elegant Trogon, Squirrel Cuckoo, Spot-breasted Wren and Sungrebe required a bit of work.

 

Rivaling the birds in spectacle and surpassing them in numbers were the butterflies. They were everywhere, their colorful gossimer wings flitting around and above us as we walked. Luckily our friend Terry Fuller, his wife Marci and son Nicolas were with us. Terry, an expert butterflier, helped us identify most of the species that we observed. Tropical species like Common Morpho, Two-barred Flasher, Spot-celled Sister, Elf, Two-spotted Prepona, and Square-tipped Crescent, were only a few of the 180 or so species we encountered. 

 

Unfortunately our Mexican adventure was coming to an end and we had to head back to Texas as Jeff and I were leading field trips at the Rio Grande Birding Festival in Harlingen. For the trip back we decided to drive the western side of the mountains. In stark contrast to the lush green mountains of the east side, cactus and Joshua Trees dominated the landscape in flat arid desert along the road north. Just after sunrise we stopped in a small town of Juamave to witness the spectacle of flocks of raucous Military Macaws flying around and perching in trees throughout the town.  These large, blue, green and red birds come down from the mountains each fall to feed on the many pecan trees in the town. 

 

As we re-entered the U.S, I was already planning my next trip to the tropical mountains of Tampaulipas, Mexico.  

If you are interested in such a trip, please inquire with the Delaware Nature Society about our trip, Texas and Mexico: Brushland to Cloud Forest, February 12-21, 2009, led by Jeffrey Gordon.  Contact Joe Sebastiani at 302-239-2334 ext. 115 or email joe@delawarenaturesociety.org.

By Derek Stoner, Education Program Assistant 
Swarms of Snow Geese swirl into Raymond Pool at Bombay Hook NWR.
Swarms of Snow Geese swirl into Raymond Pool at Bombay Hook NWR.

Delaware is fortunate to have a wealth of waterfowl and wetlands. 

The Young Waterfowlers class, an in-depth course offered each fall by the Delaware Nature Society and Red Clay Valley Association, introduces youth to waterfowl, wetlands, and the waterfowling tradition.  There are 27 students taking the course this fall, ranging in age from 11 to 16.
Young Waterfowlers students and parents scan for waterfowl at Dragon Run Marsh.

Young Waterfowlers students and parents scan for waterfowl at Dragon Run Marsh.

 On Sunday, we headed afield for our annual Waterfowl Identification Field Trip.  Jim White, Associate Director of Land and Biodiversity, co-led the trip.  Jim’s son is a second-year student in the class.
At Dragon Run Marsh, a rich freshwater marsh outside Delaware City, all the birds concentrated in an open patch of water amidst the ice.
Gadwalls, Northern Shovelers, and Mallards crowded together in the frigid water.  Gracing the flock with a splash of color was a drake Redhead, a gorgeous duck with a rusty head and bright blue beak.
A flock of Mallards(and a couple Black Ducks) rest on an icy pond.

A flock of Mallards(and a couple Black Ducks) rest on an icy pond.

Waterfowl are incredibly hardy.  They are actually able to restrict blood flow to their feet when standing on ice, so their blood does not chill.  Cold weather is no deterrent to these birds!
Using dip nets, Young Waterfowlers search for aquatic life in a brackish pond at Woodland Beach Wildlife Area.

Using dip nets, Young Waterfowlers search for aquatic life in a brackish pond at Woodland Beach Wildlife Area.

On our trip, we learned more about wetlands by visiting a marsh and pond.  With nets in hand, students captured Banded Killifish, Mummichogs, Atlantic Silversides, and Grass Shrimp.  
The Young Waterfowlers course offers plenty of hands-on activities: carving duck decoys, practicing duck and goose calls, and visiting important waterfowl areas like Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge. 
Buffleheads(two drakes and a hen) swim in a tidal creek at Bombay Hook NWR.

Buffleheads(two drakes and a hen) swim in a tidal creek at Bombay Hook NWR.

For the day, Young Waterfowlers witnessed tens of thousands of Snow Geese, saw Buffleheads bobbing in a tidal creek, and heard the quirky quacks of Gadwall.  Our final field trip of the season provided a memorable experience for all.
By Derek Stoner, Education Program Assistant 
 
A Winterberry cloaked in fresh snow.
A Winterberry cloaked in fresh snow.

What a fine surprise to look outside in the morning and find the landscape draped in a layer of white fluffy snow.  As snowflakes fell in northern Delaware, a normal November day transformed into a winter wonderland. 

A White-tailed Deer peers through snow-laden brambles.

A White-tailed Deer peers through snow-laden brambles.

There is always a sense of magic in the air when the first snow of the season arrives.  With a fresh white canvas spread by Mother Nature, the earth looks a little cleaner and brighter.  Animals are easier to spot against a white background, like this deer I came across this morning.
 
The Ashland Covered Bridge looked quite sharp with a temporary white roof. 
A red bridge with a white snow roof against a blue sky.
A red bridge with a white snow roof against a blue sky.

How did you enjoy the first snow of the season?

Here’s hoping we have more snowy days to look forward to in the coming months!