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All posts for the month March, 2010

By Derek Stoner, Conservation Project Coordinator and Dave Pro, Land Steward

A Red Fox visits a bait station on February 24, 2010 at 1:19am.

The handsome Red Fox is the most-common wild canid in this region, and encountered in a wide variety of habitats.   In the spring, red foxes are busy feeding their kits and are frequently observed out on their hunting forays. 

There is a relatively new addition to the wild canine community, a secretive mammal that is doing an excellent job of living “under the radar.”   The Eastern Coyote is the new canid in town, and we’d like to introduce you to this interesting and secretive animal.

Over the past few years, we’ve found evidence of coyotes at Ashland Nature Center, Burrows Run Preserve, Flint Woods Preserve, and other places in northern Delaware.  Tracks, scat, and fractured deer bones indicated the presence of this large predator, and sporadic sightings by staff naturalists led us to attempt to document a coyote on camera. 

A Coyote visits the bait station on February 24, 2010, at 12:46am.

After Dave noticed large linear tracks in the snow, he surmised that a coyote could be travelling through the area.  To confirm a coyote’s presence, we  utilized the same scientific technique that mammal biologists employ to document elusive nocturnal animals.

Dave  set up the motion-sensing camera to focus on an elevated bait station located in a  young tulip forest along a stream corridor.  Attaching the bait to a tree prevented vultures and small mammals from quickly consuming the meat.  For the first week only red foxes were caught on camera, all at night. 

The coyote cautiously circled the bait for several minutes each visit.

The coyote spent 37 minutes at the bait on the morning of February 23, between 3:52 and 4:29am.  Returning the next morning, the coyote spent a total of 35 minutes over the course of two separate visits.  Each time, the images show that it consumed at least 1-2 pounds of meat.

A sensitive nose leads a coyote to its food, and they eat a wide variety of animal and plant matter.

State furbearer biologist Joe Rogerson says these are the first trail camera images of a coyote in Delaware.  He estimates this coyote to be about 35 pounds(in comparison to the 15 pound fox).  Rogerson has written an article about the current status of coyotes in Delaware:  http://www.fw.delaware.gov/Hunting/Pages/Coyotes.aspx

The Eastern Coyote is a very different creature from its western relatives, and recent research by Dr. Roland Kays(New York State Museum) best explains the current theory explaining the colonization of the northeast by coyotes:

The dramatic expansion of the geographical range of coyotes over recent decades is partly explained by changes to the landscape and local extinctions of wolves, but hybridization may have facilitated their movement.  DNA data from 686 eastern coyotes and measurements of 196 skulls helps explain their movements into the region.  Coyotes in eastern Canada bred with wolves and then migrated south into New England, while pure “western” coyotes migrated eastward from the Ohio Valley into Pennsylvania.   The result of these two migrations has led to a larger form of canid now known as the Eastern Coyote, occupying a portion of the niche left vacant by wolves.

Ears alert, a coyote inspects the bait.

Understanding that large predators stir emotions and fear  in some people, it is important to remember that the whole ecosystem of the Eastern Seaboard has changed dramatically.  When colonists killed off all the wolves, mountain lions, and black bears, the loss of these predators created a major shift in animal diversity.  

Now, as coyotes gain a toehold and expand their range in the eastern United States, we can marvel at their adaptability and will to survive in a changing landscape.

By John Harrod, Manager, DuPont Environmental Education Center

All this week visitors to the DuPont Environmental Education Center have been greeted by the calls of the Southern Leopard Frogs. What started out as a grouping of frogs at the beginning of the boardwalk has now spread to a chorus throughout the marsh.

The Southern Leopard Frog is common throughout the coastal plain of Delaware, but is not found on the piedmont. They have dark round to oval spots that form irregular lines on the back and legs and there is a distinctive light spot on the center of tympanum (ear). They closely resemble Pickerel Frogs, but Pickerel Frogs have less rounded spots and no spot on the tympanum. Also, Pickerel Frogs have bright yellow orange coloration under their hind legs.

Southern Leopard Frog. Photo by John Harrod

Southern Leopard Frog. Photo by John Harrod

The advertisement call of the Southern Leopard Frog is typically a fast series of clucks often followed by a low growl that sounds like two balloons being rubbed together. It makes the call through paired lateral vocal sacs on each side of the head.  DNS staff member Jim White reports that the leopard frogs at DEEC and other coastal areas of Delaware call somewhat differently than the typical Southern Leopard Frogs. Along with the growl the DEEC or coastal leopard frogs emit clucks singly or in a slow succession instead of in a fast series like the typical Southern Leopard Frog.  This “coastal” call variation can easily be confused with the call of the Wood Frog; however Wood Frogs do not growl and typically do not breed in marshes that are of any distance from woodlands. The call of the “coastal” Southern Leopard Frogs is so unique that White and fellow herpetologist Nate Nazdrowicz are investigating the genetics of this population to see if it is a separate subspecies.

Southern Leopard Frog vocal sac. Photo by John Harrod.

Stop by the DEEC to listen to the frogs as they should continue to actively call for another week.

By Derek Stoner, Family Program Coordinator

A Bloodroot unfurls it petals at Middle Run Natural Area. Image by Derek Stoner.

Like a runaway train, Spring keeps barreling down the tracks of nature, delivering cargo with speed and determination.  One day the ground is bare, and the next day there are flowers— or other natural delights. 

On Monday morning, the beautiful white flowers of Bloodroot burst open by the entrance to Ashland Nature Center.  Last evening at Middle Run Natural Area, the brown forest floor showed white sprinkles of Bloodroot and pink dashes of Spring Beauty in bloom. 

A male American Toad embraces his mate on the way to their marsh breeding grounds. Image by Derek Stoner.

The march of the American Toads to the marshes began this week, as warmer weather and rainy conditions coaxed these amphibians from their winter hiding places.  Marshes, vernal pool, and puddles will play host to the breeding masses and trilling calls of toads for the next few weeks.

An Osprey perches with its fish lunch near Indian River Inlet. Image by Derek Stoner

Across the state, the ospreys are returning to their favorite hunting grounds.  The pair at the Wilmington Marsh returned this week to their nest near the DuPont Environmental Education Center.  These fish-eating hawks spend their winters in Central and South America, and return in spring to breed in the fish-rich Delaware River estuary.

A male Eastern Phoebe gives his call at Middle Run Natural Area. Image by Derek Stoner.

With the emergence of flying insects, fly-catching birds have returned.  The Eastern Phoebe is a common flycatcher, and during early spring is often found catching early-emerging aquatic insects like midges, gnats, and caddisflies.  Listen for their emphatic pheeebee! next time you are outside.

By Michele Wales, Farm Program Coordinator

Dorset ewe and Dorset/Suffolk twins. Photo by Michele Wales.

March has been one busy month at Coverdale Farm.  Monday, March 22nd was a record breaking day for Jim Wolfer, Coverdale Farm Steward, and me as we welcomed twin Dorset/Suffolk “salt & pepper” lambs and a litter of Berkshire piglets. 

Fourteen-hour old Berkshire piglets resting. Photo by Michele Wales.

As the milking machine was humming around 4:00 PM and our newly born lambs were nursing, Jim hollered from the pig barn announcing the delivery of the little black and white porcine beauties.  By 6:30 in the evening, the first farm lambs and piglets had settled into their feeding frenzy.      

The smiling Berkshire sow nurses her young. Photo by Michele Wales.

At the time of birth, we carefully observe the young looking specifically for one very important action: feeding.  It is critical for each baby to find the mother and take in the colostrom or “first milk.”  This nutrient dense food provides immunity and fuel for early defense from disease.  The other critical step we seek is the bonding between mother and young.  Acceptance by the female is vital for the survival of both piglets and lambs.  This ensures that warmth, food, and protection will be available and sustained. 

Nursing lambs wag their tails with delight as they nurse. Photo by Michele Wales.

Our focus, however, is not exclusive to the young; the actions of the mother post delivery are also significant.  It is important to witness her standing, moving around, and taking water….possibly even eating.  Happily, our sow, piglets, ewe, and lambs all demonstrated the necessary behaviors to allow us to sleep soundly.    

Not to be forgotten, the Suffolk ram is sire of the salt-and-pepper lambs. Photo by Michele Wales.

All is calm and well at the farm this morning with more lambs and chicks anticipated over the next few months. 

Visit the new residents during Farm Fun Days every Wednesday from 12:00PM  to 2:30PM beginning May 5th.  NEW in 2010!  Farm Fun Day chore programs will be offered the third Saturday of each month, May through October, from 8:00AM to 11:00AM. 

Farm Fun Days are FREE for members….join the Delaware Nature Society today!  We’ll see you down on the farm!