All posts for the month April, 2011

By Derek Stoner, Conservation Project Coordinator

Magical. Breathtaking. Incredible. Amazing. Effortless.

All are barely-adequate adjectives used by observers attempting to describe the flight of the Swallow-tailed Kite that traced graceful lines through the sky at Middle Run Natural Area last weekend.

The flight of the kite on Saturday evening is seared in the memories of those who witnessed it first-hand. Dramatic powerful glides skimming the tops of the pine trees, then a quick fold of the wings and a twisting downward dive in pursuit of a dragonfly. Rising back up, the kite would circle back and dive again. On the successful attempts, the kite would emerge clutching a Green Darner dragonfly in his small yellow talons, and proceed to tear the insect to pieces with his sharp beak. Dinner on the wing, and then back for seconds. And an extra helping of dragonfly for dessert!

Talons to beak, the Swallow-tailed kite polishes off another dragonfly morsel. Image by Derek Stoner.

There are currently 15 total records ( with 11 officially accepted so far) of Swallow-tailed Kites occurring in the State of Delaware according to Frank Rohrbacher of the Delaware Bird Records Committtee, so this bird is still quite a rarity. In almost all cases, these kites are seen flying over in the spring, gliding on by and sending folks scrambling for their cameras. For a Swallow-tailed Kite to stay in one place for two days and be the subject for literally thousands of photos is a testament to the uniqueness of this occurrence.

The Swallow-tailed Kite is admired by all who witness its flight. Image by Derek Stoner.

With a wingspan of four feet and weighing an average of 15 ounces (yes, barely one pound!) the kite is a flying machine par excellence. Kites rarely flap their wings, instead using their incredibly long tail to guide their body throgh the air currents as their wings take them for a ride.

Enjoy watching the video– if you missed seeing the kite, you can at least experience its flight through the wonders of technology!

By Derek Stoner, Conservation Project Coordinator

A male House Wren sings his bubbly song at the Ashland Lodge on April 14, 2011. Image by Derek Stoner.

The past two weeks saw a flurry of activity as new animals emerged and arrived, and plants burst into full bloom.  On April 14, a male House Wren burst into song near the Ashland Lodge.  This cheerful songbird is a fantastic Sign of Spring, and became Sign #18 out of 20 for the Spring 2011 at Ashland.

Few wildflowers can match the Trout Lily for beauty and style. Image by Derek Stoner.

The next day, April 15, I received a text message from Amy White, with photo attached: Trout Lily in bloom!   Along Red Salamander Run, downstream from the Ashland Covered Bridge, these brilliant bright yellow wildflowers burst forth with color.  Sign #19 out of 20!

The only Sign left on the List? Northern Water Snake.  And on April 20, a group of school kids participating in the appropriately-named “Herp Hunters” day camp discovered Ashland’s first Water Snake of 2011.  The three-foot long snake basked in the 70-degree sunshine in the marsh, finally awakened after a long winter’s rest.

And there you have it:  20 Signs of Spring observed over the course of nine weeks.  Every week had at least one new sign emerge or appear, and the level of observation and vigilance by visitors to Ashland helped to ensure we didn’t miss anything happening in nature.   The skilled eyes and ears of many observers helped to create a unique record of Spring’s arrival in 2011 at Ashland Nature Center.   How did your Signs of Spring compare at your local park or in your own backyard?  What will next year hold?

Amy White in the field, photographing the Swallow-tailed Kite at Middle Run on April 23. Image by Derek Stoner.

Congratulations to Amy White, who correctly guessed and matched 7 out of the 20 Signs with their actual week of appearance.   This game is more of a Challenge than Contest, as it involves a good bit of luck at guessing Mother Nature’s timing in the fickle world of Spring.  Amy will receive a special framed poster of the 20 Signs of Spring 2011 at Ashland, and a copy of the poster will be displayed in the Ashland lobby for all visitors to enjoy.

By Derek Stoner, Conservation Project Coordinator

What an unmistakeable profile the Swallow-tailed Kite cuts against the wide open sky! Image by Derek Stoner

“You are not going to believe this!”  The call came in from an excited Angel Burns, who described a bird she had seen while hiking with her daughter at Middle Run Natural Area this afternoon.   Two-year old Shay pointed out the unusual bird, and mother and daughter enjoyed a special audience with this spectacular bird for fifteen minutes as it soared effortlessly above their heads.

“You are  not going to believe this, but I think it is a Swallow-tailed Kite!”   I did not doubt her observation one bit, as the Swallow-tailed is simply known as the “Flying Fieldmark.”  That incredible shape, with long wings and a long forked tail, is unmistakeable.  The stark black and white pattern makes it evern more uniquely beautiful.

I quickly posted this incredible report to the Delaware Birds email alert, and immediately zipped down to Middle Run to see if I could re-locate this amazing bird.

Eating on the wing, a Swallow-tailed Kite devours a dragonfly freshly plucked from the pine trees. Image by Derek Stoner.

It goes without saying that a bird like this stands out, and in short order the kite was spotted in the distance.  It then looped overhead and descended back into Middle Run’s hayfields along Possum Park Road.

For over two hours, the kite soared back and forth over a grove of White Pine trees, diving dramatically into the trees and coming back up with dragonflies that it snagged with its tiny talons.  A crowd of thrilled birders gathered, savoring the sight of this fantastic rarity.

In late April into May, Swallow-tailed Kites often “over-shoot” their southern breeding grounds and wander north.  Carried by strong south winds and gliding, well, like a kite, these birds can travel tremendous distances in a short time.  just this past week in New Jersey, at least three different Swallow-tailed Kites made the bird hotline news. 

There is much more to this fascinating story of the Swallow-tailed at Middle Run.  A good bit of video showing the acrobatic flight of the kite will surely be shared soon.  Stay tuned for more on the kite report!

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Programs Team Leader

Early spring is hiking time around here.  The winter weather has eased, flowers are blooming, and hiking conditions are ideal.  Meadow grass is green, but not so high you can’t walk through it, and temperatures are not too hot, not too cold.  So, during the past few weeks, I led three of our most popular exclusive day-hikes.  I say exclusive because these walks cross private property where the Delaware Nature Society has permission to lead walks occasionally. 

The Ashland to Coverdale Farm Preserve loop hike is 4 miles through oak-hickory forest, meadows, and involves a wet-foot crossing of Burrows Run.  The Ashland to Bucktoe Creek Preserve hike is 6 miles, and crosses rolling open hills of spectacular piedmont scenery.  Finally, the Flint Woods Preserve to Granogue Estate hike is 3 miles through some of the best old-growth woods in Delaware, and ends atop the Granogue water tower where you can see north to Downingtown, PA and south to Delaware City, DE.  Enjoy the photos of these walks below.

The group of Delaware Nature Society hikers prepares for the Ashland to Coverdale Farm Preserve loop hike. Photo by Tom Davis

The wet-foot crossing of Burrows Run is always a memorable moment. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Some hikers opt to cross Burrows Run without the wet feet. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Hiking from Ashland to Bucktoe Creek Preserve is a commitment of 6 miles, which was a 600-calories hike for one of our participants who had a calorie watch.  This hike features the Delaware Nature Society’s Red Clay Floodplain property, Auburn Heights State Park and Preserve (not open to the public…yet), several private properties, and finally, the 300-acre Bucktoe Creek Preserve (also private).  Luckily, after the hike, we take a van back to Ashland and don’t have to retrace our steps.

The route of the Ashland to Bucktoe hike passes this rock cut, where we are able to examine Piedmont rocks that are hundreds of millions of years old. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

The Ashland to Bucktoe hike also passes the 8th PA/DE border marker from 1892. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Finally, the very popular Flint Woods to Granogue hike starts with a gourmet meal prepared by Michele Wales, Coverdale Farm Program Coordinator.  It ends atop a stone water tower at Granogue, one of the most famous duPont estates.

Michele Wales describes the food she has prepared for participants of the walk at the Flint Woods Preserve. Gourmet and yummy! Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Dave Pro, Ashland Property Manager, finds an old pot at a historic dump along the walk. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Our goal is in sight. The Granogue Water Tower. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Looking north from the tower, we gaze up the Brandywine Valley to Downingtown, PA. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

If you are more interested in the short version of these hikes, register for the Evening Walk Series which features 6 hikes at many of the above locations on Thursday evenings, May through July.  More information on these hikes can be found here.