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All posts for the month December, 2010

By John Harrod, Manager, DuPont Environmental Education Center

Though we have not had much snow yet in Delaware, I have had the opportunity to observe other white wonders of nature in the marsh at the Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge. On a recent walk, I saw some wildlife that boast white on their bodies.

I was delighted at the unexpected sighting of a piebald White-tailed Deer among the grasses. Piebald animals lack pigment on portions of their bodies.

A piebald deer at the Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge

A piebald deer at the Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge. Photo by John Harrod

A Northern Harrier was seen skimming over the marsh hunting for small mammals. It was easily identified by the large white patch on its rump.

Northern Harrier by Bob Webster.

Northern Harrier. Photo by Bob Webster.

I also caught a glimpse of an Opossum wandering into the reeds. When the weather gets cold and food is scarcer, nocturnal animals can often be found looking for sustenance during the day. The word “opossum” is derived from Algonquian, meaning “white beast.” 

Opossum. Photo by Derek Stoner.

Opossum. Photo by Derek Stoner.

Visit us at the DuPont Environmental Education Center over the winter holiday break and see what wildlife you can find. Use DEEC’s balcony to overlook the marsh or join us on one of our free or low-cost walks into the marsh.

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

Wintering waterfowl, wintering raptors, wintering songbirds – these are common sights both in the wild and on the Delaware birdline.  However, one of my favorite wintering birds in Delaware doesn’t quite get the recognition it deserves until it begins its courtship in late winter and early spring – the American Woodcock.  Like most shorebirds, it’s very cryptic to match its habitat.  However, rather than mudflats and sandy beaches, it is at home in shrubby fields, successional woods, and swamp margins.

Chuck Fullmer found this Woodcock in late November in his compost pile.

The Woodcock has an almost comical appearance with a long, prehensile bill, designed to probe for earthworms.  It appears neckless and has a body shape more reminescent of a softball than a bird.  Woodcocks are uncommon breeders throughout the state, generally centered around the large wildlife areas and refuges, and migrate through Delaware each fall and spring.  However, with careful searching and a little luck, they can be found throughout the winter months.

DNS's own Derek Stoner snapped this photo at our Burrow's Run Preserve in Greenville, Delaware. A heart-stopping whirr of wings mere feet away is usually the first sign of a Woodcock outside of the breeding season.

A Pennsylvania Game Commission Officer once gave me good Woodcock advice – look for rich, black soil.  Fortunately in southern Delaware, we have many of these areas where sandy uplands drop off into swamp forests.  Throw in an adjacent thicket and/or wild meadow and you have an excellent place to begin your search.  For the past few winters, this habitat recipe has paid off around Abbott’s Mill Nature Center at the Cedar Bog Tract/Lee Meadow, Isaacs Tract, and our newest preserve, the Isaacs-Greene Tract.

Strips of upland woods tapering down to swampy floodplains and streams are great habitats for winter Woodcocks. Resting amongst the fallen leaves, the birds are almost insivible with only the prominent head stripes and large eye to cue in careful observers.

With the Christmas Bird Count season approaching and the Backyard Bird Count in February, head on out and see if you can locate one of these fascinating birds before they begin their unique courtship.  Don’t forget that Delaware Nature Society will be offering our annual Woodcock Walks to observe courting Woodcocks in February and March at a variety of our sites.

Old fields and shrubby meadows are great spots for Woodcocks. The males will use mowed trails as they perform their "peent" during courtship.

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

Third in a series about the Delaware Nature Society bird survey trip to Cuba. 

After experiencing the Zapata Swamp, the mountains of western Cuba were our next destination for the bird survey.  We stayed in the small town of San Diego at the Mirador Hotel.  It was a nice place with good food and a great live, original Cuban band at night.  Our guides said something about birding around some kind of cave.  I didn’t really know what that meant, but when we arrived at Cueva de los Portales, I was blown away!  Picture monolithic limestone hills covered in native vegetation and palm trees.  Now, also imagine a stream flowing through a hole in the hill, and an adjacent cave.  In this cave, Che Guevara hid during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.  Oh yeah, the birding was good here too.  We managed to find our target bird, the Cuban Solitaire, which is related to the Townsend’s Solitaire of western North America.  It is a resident of native woods and thickets, most of which have been converted to agriculture in Cuba.

Our second birding location in this area was in the abandoned Hacienda Cortina, originally owned by a wealthy friend and colleague of Batista, Cuba’s U.S.-friendly dictator who was in power before Castro.  Now this estate is a collection of ruins, statues, a tropical arboretum, ponds, grazing cows, and weeds.  It was a real wild place…and could be in a scene of a strange sci-fi or horror movie.  We luckily found our target bird here…the Giant Kingbird.  It is related to the Eastern Kingbird, which live in our area in the summer, but it has an enormous, king-size bill.  This species only lives in Cuba and it is a rarity.  Our guide, Giraldo, spotted the bird in a tree as we were driving out of the place.  Also in this area, we stopped at an orchard to find the Cuban Grassquit, which reluctantly obliged us.  In the process, we discovered a species that our guides, Caesar and Giraldo got very excited about…a Nutmeg Mannikin, which they had never seen.  This introduced bird from Asia was making a nest, which was extremely late and very noteworthy, being November.  We toasted this bird with Cuban Rum and TuKola that evening.

Check out a short video about highlights from this part of Cuba.  The soundtrack includes the strange calls of the Cuban Crow, followed by the haunting song of the Cuban Solitaire.  If you have any questions about these places, please ask.

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

As a young birder 25 years ago, I read an article about Cuba’s famous Zapata Swamp, the largest wilderness area in the Caribbean.  This landscape, similar to Florida’s Everglades, has extensive mangrove-ringed coast, tropical forest, saw-grass savannah and scattered palm hammocks, and some very endangered wildlife.  The swamp is the last refuge of the Cuban Crocodile, is a breeding site for almost all of Cuba’s endemic birds, and is the winter home for many familiar migrant birds who summer in our area.  Three bird species live in this wilderness and nowhere else in the world…the Zapata Wren, Zapata Sparrow, and Zapata Rail.  I dreamt of going to this swamp someday…

The Zapata Swamp resembles the Florida Everglades and is the largest protected wilderness in the Caribbean at over 6,000 square kilometers. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

My long-ago dream became reality on the recent Delaware Nature Society Cuba Bird Survey trip.  Most of Cuba’s endemic species can be found in this huge area, as well as vast numbers of wintering neo-tropical migrant birds.  Our job was to visit several areas in this International Biosphere Reserve/National Park and survey for all of the species we could find.  We spent time in tropical forest, saw-grass/cattail wetland, and mangrove swamp.  A priority was to attempt to find the Zapata Wren and Zapata Sparrow.  The wren is found nowhere else on earth and the sparrow is only found in a few other locations in Cuba.  A third bird, the Zapata Rail, is virtually unknown to science and lives in remote corners of the swamp.  Even Orlando H. Garrido, author of the Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba has not seen this bird, despite over 50 attempts to locate it.  We did not attempt to find this bird.  If you are a gambler, the odds on finding the wren are about 5 to 1 and the sparrow about 3 to 1.  I should have bet one of my Cuban Convertible Pesos on the wren!  The Zapata Sparrow eluded our attempts to see it.

Finally, our bird survey group caught a glimpse of a Zapata Wren, which is an endangered species. Here we are in its habitat. This bird, which looks like an over-sized House Wren, stays low in dense marsh grass and is very difficult to see. Its entire population lives in the Zapata Swamp. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Another area we surveyed was a part of the reserve near the village of Bermajas.  The goal here was to find another endangered species, the Blue-headed Quail-dove.  Again, this is a shy bird like the Zapata Wren.  Seeing a small group of them required a stake-out of about an hour in the thick, mosquito-heavy tropical forest.  Finally, a group of three walked out of the forest onto the path in front of us.  They departed as quickly as they appeared.  After seeing these very rare and beautiful birds, we were free to speak at a volume more than a whisper and slap mosquitoes with vigor.

After finding the Blue-headed Quail-dove, our guides knew which dead tree to inspect to find a Bare-legged Owl, another Cuban endemic species. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

One of the most exciting finds of the trip was a Bee Hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world. At 2.5 inches, this endemic Cuban bird was a "must see" for our group. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

I think that our favorite part of the Zapata Swamp was the area near La Salina.  After traveling for miles on a dirt road through tropical forest, we came into seemingly endless mangrove swamp with open stretches of shallow water.  The birding got really exciting here, as we saw multitudes of familiar herons and egret plus rare Reddish Egrets, pink Roseate Spoonbills, and about 400 American Flamingo!

The area near La Salina in the Zapata Swamp was incredible for wading birds such as these American Flamingo. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

The Cuban Black-hawk, otherwise known as the "crab hawk" lives in coastal areas of Cuba and feeds on...you guessed it...crabs! It is considered "near threatened" and we saw several of them in the mangrove forests. Photo by Rachel Cameron

The Director of the Zapata National Park (left) and Giraldo Alayon (our naturalist guide for the trip) scan the area for birds in the park. Photo by Marilyn Henry

The natural beauty, abundant wildlife, and shear size of the Zapata Swamp is unequaled in the Caribbean.  Similar to the Florida Everglades, this exciting wilderness is a dream to visit for a naturalist and birder.  Our group of 11 visitors from the Delaware Nature Society could have spent many more days here exploring, learning, and birding.  Unfortunately, we had to leave to survey birds in another part of Cuba.  Fortunately, more of Cuba’s incredible natural areas awaited, and more bird discoveries were headed our way.

More on the two-week Delaware Nature Society trip to Cuba is on the way in future posts.  Stay tuned!