A male Ovenbird keeps cool in the shade of the forest canopy at Middle Run. Image by Derek Stoner.
As the first day of summer arrived last week, the weather seemed to respond to the calendar: bring on the heat! Wilting plants, parched soil, and flagging enthusiasm for outdoor activites are all symptoms of this heat wave.
While we may not like the hot weather, wildlife copes with warmer temperatures just fine. With thermometers pegged in the mid-90’s last week, I watched birds gathering food for their babies, groundhogs feasting on lawn grass, and deer grazing soybeans at mid-day. These fellow warm-blooded animals kept right on with their daily feeding routine, but I will bet they all needed a bit more hydration to keep their metabolism running smoothly.
Perhaps we can nominate the Ovenbird as the official bird of summer: a woodland warbler with a hot name that plays it cool in the forest. You’ll never see one of these guys out on a sunny lawn or open area. They have got it made in the shade!
By Derek Stoner, Family and Conservation Program Coordinator
An elk herd grazes as dusk settles in the Pennsylvania Wilds. Image by Derek Stoner.
As the sun set amidst a wash of pink and gray clouds, distant lightning danced across the green-carpeted mountains. A herd of 45 elk grazed in the lush field before us, their reddish coats contrasting with the bright yellow of the wild mustard flowers. Hushed voices pointed out the bulls with the big antlers in velvet, and the many cow elk ready to give birth to their calves.
While this scene is more-expected in Wyoming or Montana, our group from Delaware Nature Society experienced this sight just 225 miles from the First State. The Pennsylvania Wilds in north-central PA is home to the largest herd of elk in the East, and the scenery there is quite reminiscent of Western landscapes. Wide-open vistas, iconic wildlife, and stunning scenery abound.
A very-pregnant cow elk, very ready to welcome a new calf. Image by Derek Stoner.
After two wonderful trips in autumn to see the drama of the elk mating rituals, we decided to visit the Wilds in spring, for a sampling of “Spring Splendor.” Over the first weekend in June, Sheila Vincent and I led the tour of places near the litle village of Benezette, visiting natural areas like the Quehanna Wilds, Marion Brooks Natural Area, and Wykoff Run Natural Area.
The elk herds gave us excellent close looks, as our first encounter found us within twenty yards of several cows whose bulging bellies signaled the impending arrival of baby elk. Perhaps these are the exact same lady elk we saw being courted by the battling bulls last September?
A Mountain Laurel in full bloom in the Pennsylvania Wilds. Image by Derek Stoner.
The wildflower show is fantastic in early June, and we hit the peak of the Mountain Laurel bloom. These beautiful bushes covered entire hillsides in pale pink blossoms, and the state flower of Pennsylvania lived up to its reputation as a delicate beauty. We reveled in the electric colors of Pink Lady’s Slipper, Devil’s Paintbrush, Blue-eyed Grass, and Gay Wings, while the subtle greens of ferns like Ostrich, Sensitive, and Cinnamon delighted the botanically-inclined. Wading through the waist-deep ferns in the largest white birch grove in Pennsylvania, we felt like we’d stepped into a prehistoric forest .
A White Admiral, with beautiful blue hindwings courtesy of hybridization with a Red-spotted Purple. Image by Derek Stoner.
One of the best surprises of the trip is the encounter we had with an unusual butterfly: a hybrid cross between a White Admiral and a Red-spotted Purple. A new butterfly for everyone (including butterfly guru Sheila!), we marveled at this insect’s combination of black, white, and electric blue. Other butterflies encountered include Spicebush Swallowtail, Little Wood Satyr, Common Ringlet, and Dreamy Duskywing.
Spectacular looks at songbirds like Blackburnian Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Indigo Bunting, and Blue-headed Vireo rounded out our wildlife experience.
Our grand finale was a visit to the Wykoff Run waterfalls, where the bending boughs of hemlock and rhododendron shaded the crystal-clear waters. The gentle murmur of the small cascades and the peaceful scene gave a strong hint as to why the area is called “The Wilds.” We look forward to returning to experience more of the magic! Enjoy the video highlights of our adventure:
The Pennsylvania Wilds is an amazing assemblage of public lands andwilderness areas. Learn more about the region at this site: http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/info/pawilds/about.aspx The Delaware Nature Society will return this fall for “Taste of the Wilds,” to enjoy the wildlife and sample fine wild game cooking. Join us for this adventure September 21-23, when we will visit the brand new (opening in September ) Elk Country Visitor Center, an incredible educational facility highlighting the signature species of the Wilds: http://experienceelkcountry.com/vc.html
Ten years ago, I bought a bird box designed for Eastern Screech-owls and put it up in my yard, which is across the street from the Bucktoe Creek Preserve. Over the years, I have had a few screech-owls roost in it during the day but nothing ever nested in it. Sure, a Carolina Chickadee or two have examined it. Once, I was excited when a Great Crested Flycatcher checked it out, but the box wasn’t to its liking. Until this spring, the box never hosted a nest of any sort.
My screech-owl box has actually hosted roosting owls, especially during the winter months.
About a month ago, I noticed a Tufted Titmouse pulling hair from the “wool wreath” in the yard, which is designed to provide birds hair for making nests. The bird had a silver band on the leg, and I figured it was one of the birds that have been banded over the years at the Bucktoe Bird Banding program that happens each September. (The banding program occurs within 300 yards of my house). The bird collected wool several times and flew off, and I never figured out where it nested until about a week ago.
Here is the "wool wreath" which attracts birds to pull out the hair for nesting material.
Last week, I heard a begging noise coming from the box, and saw a Tufted Titmouse emerge, perch on top, and saw that it had a leg band. Very cool! I observed the pair make several trips to the box with food for the young, each time producing cries from the nestlings inside. This past Sunday, the nestlings were at the entrance hole, begging for food.
Nestling Tufted Titmice wait in the bird box for a parent to bring them their next meal.
A nestling Tufted Titmouse begging for food.
Soon after the above photograph was taken, this nestling turned into a fledgling and took off into the nearby vegetation. Sometimes finding bird nests is difficult, even for common species. This one was right under my nose! If you would like to join me this Friday, I will be leading the Breeding Birds and Breakfast program at Coverdale Farm, 8-11am. Register online at www.delawarenaturesociety.org or call (302) 239-2334. We will be searching Burrows Run Preserve and Coverdale Farm to find breeding birds and will contribute our sightings to the Delaware Breeding Bird Atlas project.
The four Mallard ducklings, 17 days old, showy their downy fuzz. Image by Derek Stoner.
The quartet of baby mallards race to stay close to their mother, following in a line behind her as she leads them to food, safety and shelter. This instinctive behavior of ducklings is the origin of the saying “get your ducks in a row.”
In this case, though, the mother duck is actually a human. The babies never knew an actual duck to be their parent, and so they are imprinted upon the humans that are raising them with care at Ashland Nature Center for use in programs.
The four Mallard ducklings at 28 days old-- feathered out! Image by Derek Stoner.
These four domestic Mallard ducklings came from a hatchery in Pennsylvania and were bought at a feed store in Smyrna, DE. They turn one-month old on Friday, June 11. Domestic Mallards look just like their wild cousins, and are legal to own.
As the ducklings grow, their special oil gland develops, allowing them to waterproof their feathers. Located on the top of the tail, the uropygeal gland is rubbed with the duck’s beak and the oil is spread all over their feathers. The result is that water is repelled by the coated feathers, thus the saying “like water off a duck’s back.”
A duck's beak is well-designed to sift duckweed from the pond surface. Image by Derek Stoner.
The ducklings enjoy splashing, swimming, and bathing in the little ponds at Ashland. They love to feed on duckweed (of course!) and their scoop-like beak helps them filter seeds, insects, algae, and other edibles from the rich pond soup. Daily baths are important to maintain the health of a duck’s feathers and skin. They take a quick bath that is mostly a lot of splashing, thus the human technique of taking a “duck bath.”
The ducklings are growing quickly and within another month will be able to test their new wings and try to fly!
If you’d like to learn more about the interesting Life of a Duck, join us this Sunday, June 13, from 2:00 to 4:00pm at the DuPont Environmental Education Center (DEEC). This educational family program will introduce you to the ducklings and an adult duck, and will show you the full spectrum of duck behaviors. To register, call Ashland Nature Center at 239-2334 or DEEC at 656-1490. Come join us!