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All posts for the month May, 2010

Photos and Story By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

Just like birds, edible wild plants are a way for people to become interested in the environment, stay in touch with the cycles of the nature, and give you a great deal of pleasure throughout your life.  Such are the sentiments of Lee Allen Peterson, author of the Peterson Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern and Central North America.  Like his father, who interested millions of people in the world of birds and nature, Lee uses wild plants to get people interested in the environment around them and to become more attuned with the natural world. 

Yesterday, Lee led two groups of eager, edible wild plant buffs around the Burrows Run Preserve.  Through his leadership and identification skills, we tasted a variety of wild mustards, smelled the fragrance of Queen Anne’s lace and sweet cicely root, and learned about the variety of plants all around us that can be used as food.  We learned that lots of plants can technically be used as food, but some, like skunk cabbage, are very time consuming to prepare, and aren’t worth the effort in the end.  We were encouraged to develop our personal list of “go to plants” that are easy to obtain, won’t be causing harm to sensitive populations if collected, and are worth the time and effort to prepare.  You may already know what my “go to plant” is…Stinging Nettle!

Lee Peterson showed our group a variety of edible wild plants at the Delaware Nature Society's Burrows Run Preserve.

Using the senses during the walk was at least half the fun.  Pennsylvania bittercress has a sharp, peppery bite.  Garlic Mustard is pretty disgusting at this time of year.  Rape seed pods are sweet and crunchy, like a small green bean.  Don’t eat Dame’s Rocket…it is a mustard, but it’s awful!  Violets are best when they are small shoots, but they still are pretty tasty when they are all grown up.  The biggest lesson, however, was to know how to identify the plant before you eat it, know the parts of the plant to eat, and follow it through the seasons and get to know it before you harvest it.

A participant on the walk enjoyed the smell of sweet cicely root, which smells like root beer.

In the evening after the walks, we were treated to an wild edible food dinner at the Backburner Restaurant in Hockessin, DE.  The chef expertly prepared stinging nettle, ramps, Jerusalem artichokes, ostrich fern fiddleheads and much more for our group to try.  We wish you were there with us…so have a look at the menu and consider signing up for this program the next time we offer it. 

Stinging nettle and spinach soup with Paradocx Vineyard, Pinot Grigio, 2007

Steamed fiddleheads over baby arugula and bulls blood with heirloom tomatoes and shaved kohlrabi finished with fresh picked Coverdale Farm herbed vinaigrette.  Paired with Paradocx Vineyard Merlot, 2006

Grilled marinated venison served over butter braised ramps and roasted baby zucchini.  Finished with blended wild mushroom ragout and Jerusalem artichoke puree.  Paired with Paradocx Vineyard, Sangiovese, 2005

Coverdale Farm egg chocolate mousse with chocolate meringue strawberries and fresh spearmint.  Paired with Paradocx Vineyard, Pinot Blanc, 2007

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

Delaware Nature Society Nebraska Trip: Part II

There is plenty to keep a group of birders busy near the Switzer Family Ranch, otherwise known as Calamus Outfitters, when not watching Greater Prairie-chickens and Sharp-tailed Grouse.  After a morning of chicken-watching, we circled the 11-mile long Calamus Reservoir which is directly across the street from the ranch.  The reservoir is haven for thousands of migrating waterfowl, American White Pelicans, gulls, and Bald Eagles.  Lots of Bald Eagles.  In the winter, shad die in the reservoir, then after ice-out, they float to the surface.  This is a feast for the eagles.  In previous years, I thought 40 or 50 eagles was good.  This year, we estimated 800 Bald Eagles on the Calamus River, Reservoir, and on the ranch.  Yes, 800.

We estimated 800 Bald Eagles to be at the Calamus Reservoir on the Delaware Nature Society trip to Nebraska this past March. Photo by Hank Davis.

While sorting through flocks of Bald Eagles, we found other birds.  I bet that when you think of Nebraska, pelicans aren’t the first thing that jump to your mind.  Well, American White Pelicans breed in prairie wetlands and lakes of North America, and migrate through the Great Plains.  We always find some at the Calamus Reservoir.  This year, there was a flock of about 100 feeding and lingering on the water.  These amazing birds are huge, brilliant white and black, and are a thrill to see cruising over the water.

An American White Pelican glides over the water at the Calamus Reservoir in Nebraska. The horn on top of the bill always takes me by surprise. Photo by Hank Davis.

The list of birds that use the reservoir as a stopover is long.  We found 19 species of waterfowl (that’s slang for ducks, geese, and swans) including a Tundra Swan which is rare in Nebraska, and 62 species of birds overall.  A special highlight for me was seeing both the Northern Shrike and the Loggerhead Shrike in the area.  The Northern was at the end of the Calamus outfitters driveway!  Enjoy some photos from our day around the reservoir. 

A Harris's Sparrow is a fairly common wintering bird in the central great plains. Photo by Hank Davis.

You can see why a Western Meadowlark is the state bird of Nebraska, they are absolutely everywhere and their song is the overwhelming sound of the prairie in March. Photo by Hank Davis.

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Your first reaction to seeing a flock of Wild Turkey running scared is to laugh. I am glad Ben Franklin did not get his way to have this bird be our national symbol. No one laughs when you see a Bald Eagle…unless you are giddy from seeing 800 of them. Photo by Hank Davis.

More highlights from the Delaware Nature Society Nebraska trip to follow in a few more blogs…

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

This past March, I led the Delaware Nature Society trip to Nebraska for the fourth year in a row.  The first two-thirds of the trip are spent in Nebraska’s scenic and wild Sandhill region.  This is not your typical mid-western corn-belt area.  The Sandhills are 20,000 square-miles of rolling sand dunes covered in natural prairie.  This is the largest area of sand dunes in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the largest intact prairie ecosystems in the United States.  It is also a stronghold for healthy populations of Greater Prairie-chicken and Sharp-tailed Grouse.  We base our stay at the Switzer family ranch, otherwise known as Calamus Outfitters.  The Switzer family, who own the 12,000-acre ranch, take you into the prairie to see the chickens as well as feed and house you for your stay. 

A Nebraska Sandhills Scene: Rolling sand dunes and a "blowout" which is an area stripped of vegetation by the wind. In the foreground, blowout penstemon, a federally endangered prairie wildflower, grips the bare, sandy soil. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

The “chicken” show has us getting up way before sunrise.  We down a quick cup of coffee, then motor out to our blind…an old school bus parked on the prairie.  The birds will not see us, but we will get an awfully good look at them.  As light starts to illuminate the native grasses, male Greater Prairie-chickens fly in to claim their spot on the lek (display ground).  In a flurry of running, jumping, booming, and fighting, the males perform for the females in attendance and try to gain a spot in the middle of the lek.  The top chicken is obvious, even to us.  The other chickens don’t mess with him, and his display is performed perfectly.  He chases other chickens off his turf with authority.  The natural range of the Greater Prairie-chicken has been reduced dramatically, and the species is considered “Threatened” across its range.  The Sandhills region of Nebraska is one of its biggest population centers.

A Greater Prairie-chicken displays by erecting its tail feathers and crest, stomping its feet, drooping its wings, and "booming" with tangering-colored air sacs on the neck. Photo by Hank Davis.

On our second morning at the ranch, we repeat the process…up early, down coffee, and motor to a school bus blind.  This time, we are awaiting the arrival of the Sharp-tailed Grouse.  This is another species of wild chicken, but has a slightly different display.  These birds stoop forward, lower and rattle their wings, stomp their feet, and inflate a purple throat sac, making a haunting “cooing” sound.  Think of Native American dances with stooping over, stomping feet, and shaking rattles.  We can see the inspiration for this dance while watching the Sharp-tailed Grouse.  This species has an extensive range which extends up to Alaska.  Overall, their populations are fairly stable. 

Sharp-tailed Grouse leap into the air during a fight over a female. Photo by Hank Davis.

The grassland comes alive as you witness these chicken species displaying on the lek.  These spectacles were commonplace across the ancient prairie landscape, but now are restricted to special places that remain relatively undisturbed and natural, such as the Nebraska Sandhills.  More of our adventures from the 2010 Delaware Nature Society Nebraska trip will follow…