All posts for the month November, 2010

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader 

In early November, 2010 I had the pleasure of leading 10 Delaware Nature Society members on a two-week bird survey trip to Cuba.  Organized through the Caribbean Conservation Trust (CCT), we assisted with long-term ornithological surveys taking place in western Cuba.  

It took me a few days just to get over the fact that I was actually in Cuba, which is still off-limits to Americans as a travel destination.  We traveled legally under a humanitarian/environmental license.  On our first full day, we received an orientation to our ornithological mission and recuperated from our long day of travel in the beautiful city of Havana.  

Sunrise in Havana from the Hotel Nacional.

As part of our orientation, we visited Orlando H. Garrido, author of “Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba.”  He summarized the island’s endemic birds through a guided tour of his personal taxidermy collection and his vast experience as an ornithologist.  Orlando is one of Cuba’s greatest naturalists, but is also a noted tennis player, having played in Wimbledon, 1956-1961 and the U.S. Open in 1959.

Orlando H. Garrido, author of "Field Guide To The Birds of Cuba" signs copies of his book and explains the natural history of Cuba's endemic birds.

For a lunch stop, we visited another famous Cuban, Jose Fuster, who is known as the “Cuban Picasso.”  Jose is an acclaimed artist who has turned his entire neighborhood into a vast art project.  His house itself is a work of art and contains his gallery, work station, a visitation area. 

Our group was amazed at the sight of the neighborhood and house of one of Cuba's most accomplished artists, Jose Fuster.

The architecture in Havana is a combination of old Spanish colonial mixed with art-deco, and a twist of New Orleans French Quarter design.  Many of the structures are long overdue for repair, but it is an extremely beautiful and historic city nonetheless.  We experienced a good deal of it driving to and from our appointments for the day. 

Plaza de la Revolucion is a huge gathering site for political rallies. On one side is the Memorial a Jose Marti, Cuba's national hero. The 17m marble statue sits overlooking the square.

Across the square is the Ministerio del Interior with a huge mural of Che Guevara. Che, who fought alongside Fidel Castro, is another national hero in Cuba. His image is seen everywhere on billboards, houses, hats, shirts, and even car headlamps.

Speaking of cars, if you are an antique vehicle enthusiast, you could spend all day “car-watching” in Havana.  American cars from the 50’s are everywhere, and I estimated about 10% of the vehicles we saw were old American models.  Otherwise, European and Asian vehicles were the main method of transportation other than lots of bicycles, motorcycles, old buses, and lots of interesting taxis.

If you know what kind of car this is, please let me know. "Car-watching" was almost as fun as "Bird-watching."

There were lots of old American cars that were being used as taxis in Havana.

A typical city street in old Havana.

Historic buildings, old forts, monuments, statues, and incredible architecture is everywhere in Havana.  The most grandiose and incredible building in Havana is the Capitolio Nacional which is similar to the US Capitol building but a little taller and richer in detail. 

The most incredible building in Havana is the Capitolio Nacional, which used to house the Cuban Congress. Since 1959 it has been the home of the Cuban Academy of Science and National Library of Science and Technology.

After a day getting the feel for Havana and an orientation to our bird survey, we were ready for the countryside, national parks, and biosphere reserves…and of course…Cuba’s birds!  More on that to follow in future posts.

Register for the DNS Travel Year In Review on December 9, 6-8:30 p.m.  The program, which includes a dinner and evening presentation of our travel programs from 2010, will include highlights from the Cuba trip.  For more information and to register, click here.

By Jason Beale, Manager, Abbott’s Mill Nature Center

I set out to the Delaware Nature Society’s newest natural area, the Isaacs-Greene Preserve, with the intention of getting some photos of deer scrapes and rubs to write about their annual breeding season, the  rut.  However, as it often happens in nature, other discoveries present themselves as well.

Line of buck rubs. Look closely to see another rub in the upper left corner.

I did indeed find signs of the rut.  Rubs are found on small trees where bucks have used their antlers to remove strips of bark.  This serves two purposes.  It helps the buck shed the remaining velvet from his antlers and deposit scent from glands on the head to mark his territory.

Buck scrape. Notice overhanging vegetation above the scrape, a common association.

Scrapes are areas on the ground, usually a few feet in diameter, where a buck clears the ground and urinates to leave his scent.  Bucks often thrash the vegetation overhead and may use low hanging twigs to deposit scent from their pre-orbital glands in the corner of their eyes.  Does visit scrapes and urinate in them to let bucks know that they are ready to mate.  Both rubs and scrapes are often found along a well-used trail and are checked frequently by the attending buck.

This beaver made frequent tail slaps and "swim-bys" while I was in the area.

I next stopped by the Beaver Pond which was originally an irrigation pond created by damming Johnson’s Branch.  I was greeted by a loud tail slap, possibly a way to warn other beavers and animals of my approach.  The beaver then proceeded to swim toward me in a repeating crossing pattern punctuated by more tail slaps.  Beavers are often regarded as nocturnal or crepuscular (active around dawn and dusk), but where human contact is uncommon, they may be diurnal.

Otter scat containing fish scales and crayfish on


I followed the edge of the pond and came to a River Otter “haul-out” site. These are areas that otters frequent, usually along an open bank, to deposit scat, make scent mounds, and roll around.  This area has shown steady use for the few years that I’ve visited the site.

Northern River Otters at Reynolds Pond. Photo by Trevor Metz.


We’ll continue to maintain the Isaacs-Greene Preserve as a private conservation area, but we will begin offering forays by foot and canoe to the public starting in the spring.  However, we have already added the site into the Abbott’s Mill Nature Center Weekly Walk rotation.  We meet at the center parking lot every Thursday at 8am and hope you can join us.

By John Harrod, Manager, DuPont Environmental Education Center

Over the summer and last weekend at WildFest, Blue Crabs were caught in the DuPont Environmental Education Center’s freshwater tidal pond. Most visitors were surprised to find crabs here since they are usually associated with brackish (slightly salty) and salt water along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

An excited summer camper with a Blue Crab. Photo by John Harrod.

  Blue crabs can live in fresh water. To find out the salinity content of our pond, I borrowed a refractometer from the Delaware Nature Society’s technical monitoring program. The pond registered a salinity reading of 0 parts per million (ocean water is 32+ ppm).

Pete Zeigler demonstrating use of a hand refractometer. Photo by John Harrod.

 Growing up to 9 inches, this crustacean is an opportunistic bottom-dwelling predator that feeds on anything it can find including live and dead fish, clams, snails, and detritus (decayed organic matter).

A recent catch at WildFest that could grow up to 9 inches. Photo by Laura Orth.

 This predator is also prey of wildlife including eel, striped bass, other blue crabs and catfish. As its scientific name – Callinectes sapidus – indicates, people enjoy them too. It translates, “beautiful swimmer that is savory.”

 To learn more about DNS technical monitoring program visit here.

By Derek Stoner, Conservation Project Coordinator

A Least Shrew prowls a meadow in pursuit of insects and other tiny invertebrates. Image by Derek Stoner.

Not many people keep mammal life lists.  Plenty of folks keep careful records of all the birds, butterflies, dragonflies, or reptiles and amphibians that they observe.  But I suspect that the mammal family gets short shrift from the “listers” out there.   A lot of that reason is because of how difficult it can be to observe mammals well in the wild.  Sure you see deer, squirrels, and groundhogs, but have you ever seen a Least Shrew?

Up until a couple weeks ago, the answer for me was “No!”  I’ve been fortunate to have brief glimpses of small rodents thorugh the years, mostly scampering Meadow Voles and skittering White-footed Deer Mice. I find small mammals to be fascinating since they form the prey base for the big critters we know well, like Red Foxes, Red-tailed Hawks, and Great-horned Owls.  Most small mammals spend their time underground or otherwise hiding very well from these predators, and are exceptionally difficult to observe in their natural habitats.   Photographing them alive(and in the open) is nearly impossible! 

An adult Least Shrew in hand-- three inches of boundless energy! Image by Derek Stoner.

While working in the tree planting field at Middle Run Natural Area recently, Steve Johnas and I spotted a tiny brown mammal scampering through the grass.  I ran over and managed to capture the little guy.  It turned out to be a Least Shrew– at last!  I’d seen a few dead specimens of this species, but now I was holding a real live one.  And it felt like holding nothing!  Soft, lustrous brown fur cloaked the body, and the incredibly-long snout looked comical.  This appendage helps these insectivores sniff out their prey while hunting in fields and brushy meadows.  The shrew seemed to grow comfortable with being handled, but I would not say that this was a case of the “Taming of the Shrew.”  We let him go to see how he would go about his normal business. 

We watched this diminutive mammal ramble along through the dried grass, its long snout guiding its exploration.  Pausing to poke its nose into crevices, the shrew kept a frenetic pace as it searched for food.  Lots of crickets and grasshoppers lurk in this field, and Least Shrews are known to open up the abdomens of these orthopterans and eat the internal organs.  Sounds delicious!

Getting a small mammal to pose on a perch is very rare and not easy! Image by Derek Stoner.

The Least Shrew has a fast-burning metabolism and lives a very brief life.  The oldest in captivity lived to the ripe age of 21 months, but most never make it to the 12-month mark.  Mostly these creatures eat and reproduce during their short lifespan, so there’s little need to sleep and rest.  Our smallest local mammal weighs in at around 5 grams(as much as a nickel) and attains a length of 3 inches, including the tiny tail.   

We count ourselves lucky to have spent a bit of time with the amazing Least Shrew, an incredible native mammal.   Maybe you’ll see one some day!

Middle Run Natural Area, north of Newark, is an 850-acre county-owned park.  A reforestation project coordinated by the Delaware Nature Society over the past 20 years has helped to plant nearly 40,000 trees that provide over 50 acres of excellent early-successional habitat.  A great diversity of wildlife benefits from this major conservation project, with Least Shrews just one of the amazing species that lives here.

This Sunday, November 14, we will be planting 1,500 trees at Middle Run as part of this volunteer-driven effort.  If you’d like to help out, please click on this link for more information:

November 14 2010 Middle Run Tree Planting flyer