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All posts for the month April, 2009

By Derek Stoner, Education Program Assistant

Sightings from the past week: what to look for now outdoors!

An adult Broad-winged Hawk soars above the White clay Valley on April 18, 2009.

An adult Broad-winged Hawk soars above the White Clay Valley on April 18, 2009. Photo by Derek Stoner.

Return of the Raptor:  Amidst the arrival of colorful songbirds that wintered in the tropics, a long-distance migrant raptor is often overlooked in its journey north: the Broad-winged Hawk.  
While huge flocks of these small woodland raptors may be seen during  fall migration(headed to South America), the spring movement of these birds is much less-celebrated.  On a good day in late April with winds from the south, a patient observer may see Broad-wingeds flying along river valleys and ridges as they trace a path northward.
A Mourning Cloak basking on the ground, its dark chocolate brown wings helping to pick up the warmth of the spring sun.

A Mourning Cloak basking on the ground, its dark chocolate-brown wings helping to pick up the warmth of the spring sun. Photo by Derek Stoner.

Sap-seeker:  A member of the brushfoot family of butterflies, the Mourning Cloak overwinters as an adult and emerges on sunny days in late winter or early spring.  Named for the funereal color of its wings, these butterflies feed on tree sap, particularly that of oak trees.  Before flowers are available to provide nectar for our many native butterflies, the Mourning Cloak is flying around and seeking out sap in our local woodlands.
A Trout Lily in full bloom at White Clay Creek State Park, April 18, 2009. Photo by Derek Stoner.

A Trout Lily in full bloom at White Clay Creek State Park, April 18, 2009. Photo by Derek Stoner.

Fishy Flower:  The Trout Lily is so-named because of its mottled leaves, which look rather like the speckled skin of a Brook Trout.  Local woodlands in late April are ablaze with these brilliant yellow blooms.  The plants spread underground by corms, and dozens of blooms may occur in a few square feet of forest floor. 

By Joe Sebastiani, Members Program Team Leader

Each year in the Spring we take the Delaware Nature Society Teen Naturalist group for an overnight somewhere.  Last week, we spent a night at the Mallard Lodge near Smyrna, DE.  The Mallard Lodge is owned by the Delaware Department of Fish and Wildlife.  If you take a training course, your group can stay at the lodge for free if you are studying the wetland ecology of the surrounding area. 

Last Wednesday was a complete wash out.  It was raining a little when we arrived and unpacked, and when we went out for dip-netting in the marsh…heavy rain!  Twenty minutes later, after having bagged ourselves a few silversides, mummichogs, and grass shrimp, we were soaked through to the skin.  Good thing they have aquariums and live animals at the Aquatic Resource Education Center next door. 

Later that day, the rain slowed and we were able to tour around Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge.  One of our best sighting was a Black-necked Stilt on the roadway eating waterlogged worms.

A Black-necked Stilt at Bombay Hook NWR, DE.

A Black-necked Stilt at Bombay Hook NWR, DE.

In the evening, we put on our waders and went into the nearby freshwater marsh to look for frogs and birds.  Spring Peepers and a few New Jersey Chorus Frogs were calling, but it was fairly cold and we didn’t see any.  It was fun to squat down in the marsh and watch Green-winged Teal and Wilson’s Snipe zoom past us as they looked for a night-time roost.
A Teen Naturalist looks for frogs at the Aquatic Resource Education Center near Smyrna, DE.

A Teen Naturalist looks for frogs at the Aquatic Resource Education Center near Smyrna, DE.

In the evening, Jason Beale from Abbott’s Mill Nature Center showed the Teens how to start a fire with a bow drill and a hand drill.  Several of us successfully started a fire, others at least got a good coal to burn. 

Starting a fire with a bow drill.  I was impressed that they started fires!

Starting a fire with a bow drill. I was impressed that they started fires!

The next day was a completely different story weather-wise.  We woke to a wonderful sunrise, singing birds, and warmer temperatures.  Our traditional morning walk at the Mallard Lodge is a 5-mile round-trip  jaunt to the Delaware Bay.  Winding our way down Lighthouse Road heading east, we crossed pristine and expansive brackish marsh.  We heard the “kuk kuk kuk…” of a Clapper Rail and saw it flush.  We saw about 10 Northern Harriers cruising by looking for a meal.  A dead Least Shrew on the trail was one of the highlights of the trip for Rachelle.  Who knew a dead shrew would be so entertaining!
Sunrise at the Mallard Lodge, Smyrna, DE.

Sunrise at the Mallard Lodge, Smyrna, DE.

Beach combing at Woodland Beach, DE.

Beach combing at Woodland Beach, DE.

On the hike back to the Mallard Lodge from the beach, it had warmed up enough for snakes to come out and bask.  We saw 2 Eastern Ratsnakes and 3 Northern Black Racers, which were a thrill for everyone. 
We caught a Northern Black Racer while it basked in the morning sunshine.

We caught a Northern Black Racer while it basked in the morning sunshine.

To end our trip, we went seining and beach-combing at Woodland Beach.  The Teen Naturalists enjoyed catching lots of mummichogs, Atlantic silversides, striped killifish, and thousands of small grass shrimp.  This is an incredible area for observing wildlife and learning about Delaware’s coastal ecosystem.  If you are a school teacher or scout leader, take the training at the Mallard Lodge so you can inspire your students or group with this enriching experience.

By Joe Sebastiani, Members Program Team Leader

Third in a series about the Delaware Nature Society trip to Nebraska.

March in Nebraska weather-wise can be very unpredictable.  It may be in the 70’s one day, and the next…back to winter!  Our second full day in Nebraska, we had quite a surprise when we opened our doors.  Six inches of snow, temperatures in the 20’s, and wind strong enough to huddle up the cattle into tight groups, let alone people.  We set out to see Sharp-tailed Grouse displaying on their lek.  Would they even show up on such a miserable morning?  The answer was yes.  Would they dance?  Well…maybe a little.

Sharp-tailed Grouse staring at each other in the snow and wind.  Photo by Marilyn Henry.

Sharp-tailed Grouse staring at each other in the snow and wind. Photo by Marilyn Henry.

The birds flew in, haggled with each other for location, and pretty much stared at each other.  If someone got out of place, they rush one another with tail up, feet stomping, wings shaking and dangling, charge….and stop to stare.  There was a lot of that in the snow and wind that morning.  Eventually, they flew off to roost in the cedar trees.
Since we only got a partial show, we were taken on a four-wheeling expedition of the 12,000-acre ranch.  Over the sandhills…down the sandhills, repeated over and over.  We visited the cattle herd and their newborn calves, being protected by the weather by their mothers. 
A young calf on the ranch.  Photo by Marilyn Henry.

A young calf on the ranch. Photo by Marilyn Henry.

We also visited the location of marker honoring a young woman who died here during in the 1800’s as the family made their way west by wagon.  The family never forgot her and returned from California just a  few years ago to pay their respects and place a memorial marker.
Later that day, and sad to leave Calamus Outfitters www.calamusoutfitters.com and our hosts Bruce, Sue Ann, and Adam Switzer, we left for Kearney and the land of the Sandhill Cranes.
Saying goodbye to Calamus Outfitters.  Photo by Marilyn Henry.

Saying goodbye to Calamus Outfitters. Photo by Marilyn Henry.

We left the snow behind us quickly, and proceeded to Fort Kearney Historic Site and Recreation Area.  Here, we walked a rail-trail over the Platte River and got our first view of this important waterway.  For a river that starts in the Rockies of Colorado and Wyoming, and travelling hundreds of miles until this point, it is pitifully small.  Thank a few large dams upstream and huge amounts of water siphoned for irrigation along its length for the river’s modern day reality.  No longer does this beautiful prairie river swell with Rocky Mountain floodwaters and meander along it’s vast grassland floodplain.

The Platte River near Kearney, NE.  Photo by Joe Sebastiani

The Platte River near Kearney, NE. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Our walk along the rail-trail was windy and cold, but did produce one bird we were looking for, the Harris’s Sparrow.  In a flock with Dark-eyed Juncos, we found three of these beautiful birds.

A Harris's Sparrow near Kearney, NE.  This species winters primarily in the mid-west.  Photo by Joe Sebastiani

A Harris's Sparrow near Kearney, NE. This species winters primarily in the mid-west. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

We looked forward to our adventures the next day…exploring the Rainwater Basin and the dramatic return of the Sandhill Cranes to the Platte River in the evening.  More on that later…