Success with Early-successional Habitat

By Derek Stoner, Conservation Project Coordinator

A Yellow-breasted Chat has a lot to talk about at Middle Run Natural Area. Image by Derek Stoner.

Perched atop a Red Oak, the  vociferous Yellow-breasted Chat belts out a gurgling song that sounds like a Mallard crossed with a Mockingbird. 

At Middle Run Natural Area in Newark, a close encounter with this bird (the largest warbler in North America) is possible due to the creation of ideal chat habitat:  early-successional forest. 

For the past 20 years, the Delaware Nature Society’s Middle Run Reforestation Project, a partnership with New Castle County Department of Special Services, has resulted in nearly 40,000 trees and shrubs being planted on about 30 acres of the 850-acre county-owned natural area.  One of the primary goals of the reforestation effort is to protect the Middle Run watershed ( a tributary of White Clay Creek that supplies Newark with water), by providing a forested buffer that prevents erosion, nutrient pollution, and excessive runoff.  Another notable benefit is the creation of outstanding habitat for wildlife.

The boisterous White-eyed Vireos rule the thickets at Middle Run. Image by Derek Stoner.

In the process of forest development, the earliest stage is when the greatest diversity of wildlife species will utilize the habitat.  For the first twenty years of growth, a young (“early-successsional”) forest is a rich mix of trees, shrubs, vines, wildflowers, and grasses.  Birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, and all manner of wildlife benefit from the diversity of food and cover in a young forest.

Each spring and fall, volunteers assist with the planting of native trees and shrubs at Middle Run.  Trees like Red Oak, White Oak, Tulip Poplar, Sycamore, Green Ash, and Red Maple are planted along with shrubs like Serviceberry, Chokeberry, and Viburnum in providing food and nesting space for birds.  Many invasive plant species are removed from the plots, but some are allowed to grow in order to maintain a mix of food and cover.  Wholesale removal of invasive plants would destroy nesting cover for many critical nesting species.

A stunning male Blue-winged Warbler perches against a backdrop of honeysuckle. Image by Derek Stoner.
One of the scarcest breeding songbirds in Delaware is the Blue-winged Warbler, a beautiful wood warbler adorned in yellow, blue, and green.  The fate of the Blue-winged is closely tied to the availability of young forest habitat, as this species prefers to nest in forest thickets of 5 to 15 years in age. 
A boldly-marked male Prairie Warbler surveys his territory at Middle Run from atop a wild grape vine. Image by Derek Stoner.

The Prairie Warbler is another species closely tied to the thicket and scrub habitat created by reforestation.  The word “prairie” is a mis-nomer, as this bird more prefers the savannah-like habitat of trees and shrubs interspersed with grasses.  At Middle Run, the Prairie Warbler is a species found in all of the reforestation plots, with at least 10 pairs on territories.

A male Orchard Oriole sings from atop a tree, where his mate weaves a beautiful basket nest. Image by Derek Stoner.

Starting in late April, these neo-tropical birds arrive at the reforestation area and start setting up territories.  Males sing and display, and females investigate nest sites.   Orchard Orioles love the staggered stands of small trees, as their name indicates. 

Right now, in late May through the end of July, all of these birds are busy with the task of rearing young and helping perpetuate their species.  A great place to see these early-successional specialty birds is along the new Middle Run Birding Trail.  I designed the trail, which is less than a mile in length and over slightly rolling terrain, to take visitors through the best habitat and to the best places for birding.  In an upcoming blog, I will introduce you to the birds that nest in the mature forest along the trail.

I invite you to visit Middle Run Natural Area and explore this unique birding trail for yourself.    The map below will guide you along the mowed trail. 

Middle Run Birding Trail Map 2010

Please share your Middle Run bird observations with us!

All images taken by Derek Stoner at Middle Run Natural Area along the birding trail the week of May 23, 2010.

1 thought on “Success with Early-successional Habitat”

  1. Sarah- Glad you enjoyed the story and photos from Middle Run. The place is a magnet for birds, and it’s wonderful to see the habitat work attracting special breeding birds. I’ve enjoyed documenting the diversity of birds with my new camera, a Nikon SLR I started working with just four months ago. The birds look great through the big lens!

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