Photos and story by Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader
A group of 8 birders accompanied me this morning on a walk around Ashland to look for birds and other natural wonders. We observed migration, a recently hibernating animal, courtship, a secretive mammal, edible plants, poisonous plants, nest building, and lots of birds. Once spring starts unfurling, its progress is quick. Day to day, plants and animals race forward with growth and reproduction. This morning, we enjoyed being witnesses.
All eyes were glued to nature this morning, as there was a lot to see around Ashland Nature Center, and spring is revealing itself quickly.
Today’s group contained every skill of birder, from a past President of the Delmarva Ornithological Society to someone who had never gone birding. When a new birder comes on a walk, it is exciting for everyone. People want to share in the excitement when someone sees a Bluebird or Tree Swallow for the first time. It is fun to help less experienced birders locate something they have never seen and hear, “Wow…thank you!”. Everything gets attention, even a European Starling building a nest, which we saw today. Starlings are gorgeous this time of year.
Even plain-looking birds have a litte extra zip in the spring. Look for the slight bit of irridescent gold on the neck of this Mourning Dove. The powder blue eye ring is also a nice touch.
It was a surprise to see a Box Turtle out and about today. I don’t recall ever seeing one in March. Usually at this time of year, they are hidden somewhere, still deep in hibernation. Then again, this spring is not typical.
We came across a groggy Box Turtle on the walk today. It was a male that had not even opened his eyes from his winter sleep. If you recall, we have a Box Turtle marking and recapture program at Ashland that is over 25 years old. This turtle was unmarked. Was it new on the scene?
Small mammals are usually very hard to find and see in nature. During the walk today, I heard some rustling in the leaves within a blackberry patch. I thought it was going to be a White-throated Sparrow scratching for food. It turned out to be a small mammal called a Meadow Vole. This rodent is smaller than a rat and looks like a fat, overstuffed mouse with a short tail. Meadow Voles are rather cute, as you can see below. It was tough to get a photo of this one deep in the thicket.
The Meadow Vole is one of the most common mammals in our area. It is a major source of food for hawks, owls, foxes, and other predators.
WARNING: The following content contains explicit material that has to do with courtship and mating animals. Proceed only if you are: 1. over 18 years of age, or 2. a salamander.
Upon reaching the wetland at Ashland, we searched for tadpoles and frogs. We found plenty of Wood Frog tadpoles, and very tiny tadpoles of the American Toad. Then we discovered the Red-spotted Newts. Newts are large salamanders that live in the wetlands and pond at Ashland. We found two of them that were engaged in some kind of ritualistic activity.
These Red-spotted Newts were up to something. But what??
According to Jim and Amy White’s book, Amphibians and Reptiles of Delmarva (published in 2002 and available for sale at the Delaware Nature Society), this is what our newts were doing…”The more typical type of courtship behavior (of Red-spotted Newts) occurs if a male encounters an unresponsive female, in which case the male swims above the female, grasps her with his enlarged hind legs just in front of her forelegs, and then whips his tail erratically [the hula dance] and rubs his forelegs alternately on pitlike glands on the side of his head and on the female’s snout, presumably transferring chemicals that stimulate the female to mate. In this type of coursthip, the male may remain clasped to the female for several hours before he finally releases her, deposits one or more spermatophores, and then tries to guide her over the spermatophore so that she can pick up the sperm capsule with her cloacal lips”. This was on page 53 of a book you seriously need to purchase.
There will be free bird walks at Ashland Nature Center every other Thursday at 8am on these dates: April 12 & 26, and May 10 & 24. Alternately, there will be free bird walks at the Middle Run Natural Area (Possum Hollow Road entrance) at 8am on April 3 & 17, and May 1, 15, & 29.
Of course, we saw birds on today’s bird walk as well. If you want to see the list, please click this link: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S10293545