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All posts for the month September, 2009

By Derek Stoner, Education Program Assistant        September 19, 2009

It’s just a hawk.  It looks rather unremarkable and you’d probably not give it a long look like you’d accord a majestic Bald Eagle or Peregrine Falcon.

A Broad-winged Hawk displays its classic silhouette(and name-sake shape) in soaring flight.

A Broad-winged Hawk displays its classic silhouette(and name-sake shape) in soaring flight.

But this species of hawk, the Broad-winged, holds a special secret.  Each September,  these normally-solitary woodland hawks head southward on their migration to wintering grounds in South America.  Taking advantage of thermals(warm updrafts of air) created on sunny days, the hawks rise up in the sky in tight circles, soaring on their broad wings and then gliding slowly southward until they pick up another thermal. 

It’s kind of like riding a long series of elevators in the sky, to equate a human convenience to a hawk’s method of long-distance travel. 

A "kettle" of Broad-winged Hawks soaring above the Ashland Hawk Watch on September 19, 2009.

A "kettle" of Broad-winged Hawks soaring above the Ashland Hawk Watch on September 19, 2009. A total of 87 Broad-wingeds in this photo!

Now here’s the secret: these hawks ride mass transit!  These elevators in the sky can get really crowded, because these hawks are in a hurry to get down to South America as soon as they can. Wait too long into the fall, and their inefficient flapping will never get them to the Southern Hemisphere.  If you are a Broad-winged, soaring is where it’s at! 
Today we experienced an incredible flight of Broad-wingeds at the Ashland Hawk Watch.  “Kettles”, or large flocks, of Broad-wingeds rose up in feathered swarms, boiled over and streamed southward.
How many Broad-winged Hawks are in this group?  In binoculars, these still look like specks, so don't feel bad if you need to use a magnifying lens to look closely at this photo!

How many Broad-winged Hawks are in this photo? In binoculars, these still look like specks, so don't feel bad if you need to use a magnifying lens to look closely at this image! (There are 86 hawks pictured)

Groups of 80, 100, 130, 160, and even 200 hawks at a time flew together, and gave the appreciative hawk watchers below a show as they passed high overhead.  High-up specks that looked like pepper became salt when the birds banked and showed white bellies.

As each kettle was spotted, short statements like “That’s crazy!”, “Oh my Gosh”, and “They can’t all be hawks!” issued from the wide-open mouths of stunned observers.  Could there really be this many Broad-winged Hawks?  And how many could we not see that were too high or just over the next hill? 

Happy Hawk watchers at the end of a record-setting day!  Sahortly affter the photo was taken, another 165 Broad-wingeds came by in one group! (L to R: Derek Stoner, Bob Rufe, Jim Lewis, Kim Steininger, and Cyrus Moqtaderi)

Happy hawk watchers at the end of a record-setting day! Shortly after the photo was taken, another 165 Broad-wingeds came by in one group! (L to R: Derek Stoner, Bob Rufe, Jim Lewis, Kim Steininger, and Cyrus Moqtaderi)

At the end of the day, when the clock struck 5:30pm we called an end to the day of Broad-winged madness.  Sunburned eyes and dizzy heads could finally rest. 

The final count?   3,263 Broad-winged Hawks.  More than anyone at the hawk watch today had ever seen.  Or ever fathomed. 

Guess what?  Today, another hawk watch just 50 miles to the north tallied 7,525 Broad-wingeds!  Just when you think you’re doing well…

All photos by Derek Stoner

By Derek Stoner, Education Program Assistant

A lovely waterfall cascades over an old mill dam on Burrows Run.

A lovely waterfall cascades over an old mill dam on Burrows Run.

Walking along the beautiful Burrows Run, with its clean and clear water, we admired the cascade flowing over the remnants of a dam.  Past activities of humans still slow the flow of the stream, long after the mill has disappeared.

On Wednesday our birding group visited a lovely estate just two miles north of Ashland Nature Center, where Burrows Run flows through before entering the Delaware Nature Society’s Burrows Run Preserve.  We found colorful migrant birds like Northern Parula, Black-and-white Warbler, and American Redstart, but the creature that stole the show wore a black mask.

A raccoon reclines high in its hollow tree home.

A raccoon reclines high in its hollow tree home.

Sharp-eyed Carol spotted a raccoon sleeping in the hollow of an old white oak tree.  The raccoon shifted around in its wooden bed, and actually appeared to yawn a few times!  Laying on its back with its head out the hole and towards the sky, the ‘coon seemed to be enjoying a good nap. 
A Broad-winged Hawk circles low overhead, after leaving its morning roost.

A Broad-winged Hawk circles low overhead, after leaving its morning roost.

 As we entered a field, a raptor came gliding low overhead.  A Broad-winged Hawk!  As we scanned around, we saw groups of Broad-wingeds rising up from the trees in the surrounding valley.  These raptors spent the night roosted in the forest, and now they arose to resume their migration south. 
A small flock, or "kettle" of four Broad-winged Hawks rises in the sky.

A small flock, or "kettle" of four Broad-winged Hawks rises in the sky.

In just 40 minutes, we counted 237 Broad-winged Hawks as they lifted off and headed south.  A phone call to Cyrus at the Ashland Hawk Watch confirmed that these same groups of hawks were reaching his location 4-5 minutes after we saw them pass. 
The movements of these migrant hawks may seem magical and mysterious, but we can definitely understand the raccoon’s need for a nap!  
Photos by Derek Stoner 

By Joe Sebastiani, Members Program Team Leader

Yesterday, I co-led a trip to the Nottingham Serpentine Barrens in nearby Chester County, PA with botanist Janet Ebert.  Each year, the Delaware Nature Society offers a few trips to this recently designated National Natural Landmark. 

This rare ecosystem of pitch pine, scrub oaks, and rare wildflowers and grasses is a bizarre and fun place to visit if you are a naturalist.  Serpentine rock is the dominant feature here, but is rare at the surface on earth.  In North America there are 3 main areas where it occurs…California and southern Oregon, western Newfoundland and the Gaspe Peninsula, and southeastern PA and northeastern MD. 

Serpentine aster (Aster depauperatus) is common at Nottingham, but is a globally rare plant, growing only here and a few other locations nearby.

Serpentine aster (Aster depauperatus) is common at Nottingham, but is a globally rare plant, growing only here and a few other locations nearby.

The soil is barren, rocky, low in essential nutrients, and high in heavy metals like nickel, chromium, and magnesium.  These conditions make it difficult or impossible for most of the plants in our area to grow.  Therefore, the Serpentine Barrens plant community is a rare collection of plants that can handle the tough conditions.  These include prairie grasses that live mainly in the mid-west, plants that usually live on the sandy coastal plain, and tiny plants that can handle living on bare rock and gravel.

Other than the globally rare serpentine aster pictured above, we saw lots of other specialized and very rare plants.  Our walk took us through open savanna habitat and recently burned-over areas dominated by grasses and scattered pitch pines.  In other areas we found strange oaks, some of which shorter that us at their full-grown height.  Oddities such as bear oak (Quercus ilicifolia), blackjack oak (Q. marilandica), dwarf chinkapin oak (Q. prinoides), and post oak (Q. stellata) created shrubby thickets among the pines.

Striped gentians (Gentiana villosa) were blooming among the grasses at the serpentine barrens.

Striped gentians (Gentiana villosa) were blooming among the grasses at the serpentine barrens.

 

This area was once greenbriar thicket and pitch pines, but a severe fire 2 years ago turned it into beautiful savannah.

This area was once greenbriar thicket and pitch pines, but a severe fire 2 years ago turned it into beautiful savanna.

Janet Ebert is a freelance botanist who knows her stuff!  As she pointed out one rare species after the next, the group soaked it up and took notes.  Names like big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass, prairie dropseed, purpletop grass, whorled milkweed, wild indigo, swamp thistle, tall sunflower, black huckleberry, and gray goldenrod were eagerly written into personal notebooks.

Tall sunflower (Helianthus giganteus) were in bloom along the trails.

Tall sunflower (Helianthus giganteus) were in bloom along the trails.

Yellow-eyed grass (Hypoxis hirsuta) was found blooming in a few locations.

Yellow-eyed grass (Hypoxis hirsuta) was found blooming in a few locations.

Make your way over to Nottingham County Park in southwestern Chester County, PA to experience this wonderful and beautiful serpentine barrens.  This unique area is close in proximity to Delaware, but you feel like you are out in the mid-west or on the southeastern coastal plain.  It is a nice and inexpensive way for a naturalist to “get away”.

By Joe Sebastiani:  Members Program Team Leader

The 3rd annual Ashland Hawk Watch started on September 1st and runs to the last day of November.  The Delaware Nature Society has partnered with the Delmarva Ornithological Society, www.dosbirds.org, to make this daily hawk watch site an exciting reality.  The 2009 fall migration season has started off very well, with 302 raptors counted as of yesterday, including an ultra-rare Swallow-tailed Kite on September 6th.

Hawks, or more precisely, raptors, are counted as they migrate past Ashland, and data is collected for the Hawk Migration Association of North America, www.hmana.org, which compiles data from over 200 sites across the Americas.  The data that we collect assists with the overall understanding of raptor migration patterns and helps reveal population fluctuations. 

Observers scan the skies for raptors passing the Ashland Hawk Watch.

Observers scan the skies for raptors passing the Ashland Hawk Watch.

Yesterday, we quickly realized that it was going to be a great day to be looking for migrating raptors.  Early in the morning, a pair of Northern Harriers, quickly followed by an Osprey and a few Kestrels sent our Hawk Watch Coordinator, Cyrus Moqtaderi, scurrying up the hill to start the day’s count. 

Join Cyrus, this year's Hawk Watch Coordinator to spot migrant hawks, eagles, falcons, harriers, osprey, and many other birds.

Join Cyrus Moqtaderi, this year's Hawk Watch Coordinator, to spot migrant hawks, eagles, falcons, harriers, osprey, and many other birds. Cyrus works 5-days a week at the Ashland Hawk Watch, and on other days, volunteer counters from the Delmarva Ornithological Society are present.

Soon, the partly cloudy skies produced what was the best flight of raptors that we have recorded in the first 10 days of September over the last 3 years.  It was an American Kestrel highway, with a record-breaking 43 seen for the day.  The previous high was 22 recorded on September 22, 2007.  Other birds yesterday included 8 Osprey, 9 Bald Eagle, 4 Northern Harrier, 16 Sharp-shinned Hawk, 8 Cooper’s Hawk, 2 Red-shouldered Hawk, 4 Broad-winged Hawk, 5 Merlin (1 shy of tying the record), and 1 Peregrine Falcon (plus one unidentified bird) for a total of 101 raptors for the day. 

A record-breaking one-day total of 43 American Kestrel flew past the Ashland Hawk Watch.

A record-breaking one-day total of 43 American Kestrel flew past the Ashland Hawk Watch yesterday.

 

This Merlin, a falcon only a little bigger than a Kestrel, cruised past the Hawk Watch closely, but very quickly.

This Merlin, a falcon only a little bigger than a Kestrel, cruised past the Hawk Watch closely, but very quickly. 5 of these falcons migrated past the Ashland Hawk Watch yesterday. The most we have ever had in one day is 6.

Local raptors that aren’t passing through were seen from the Hawk Watch as well.  These are not counted in the official tally of migrants.  We were entertained by a local Cooper’s Hawk jostling with a couple of American Crows.  The hawk’s attention was centered on one crow, while the other one kept its distance during the aerial maneuvering.  

A juvenile Cooper's Hawk plays around with an American Crow.  Is this play?  practice?  It is doubtful that it is attacking the crow to catch a meal.

A juvenile Cooper's Hawk goes after an American Crow. Is this play? Practice? Or is the hawk attacking the crow to catch a meal?

 

An American Crow fends off an attack from a juvenile Cooper's Hawk.

The American Crow reaches up to fend off an attack from the juvenile Cooper's Hawk.

Take some time this fall to visit the Ashland Hawk Watch!  The hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily through November.  Come to watch the drama of the raptor migration spectacle, and experience the seasonal change at one of the most scenic locations in Delaware.  During the period of September 14 to 25, the bulk of the migrating Broad-winged Hawks will be coming through.  Last year we had a few days where over 1,000 passed by.  Other good times to visit are the few days following a cold front.  For more information about the Ashland Hawk Watch, visit http://delawarenaturesociety.org/hawkwatch.html.