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All posts for the month March, 2013

By Michele Wales, Farm Program Coordinator

Spring has just arrived…HOORAY! However, at Coverdale Farm, we have been working as if this verdant season has been here for weeks! Our 352-acre preserve is a dream-come-true for the green thumbs on staff that grow food for our CSA members; grow gardens to teach children about food plant life cycles; grow feed for our livestock; and manage the natural areas for biodiversity.

Timing is everything to make these gardens and fields thrive. Working early in the cold winter months we comb through seed catalogs; make field maps and garden plans; and devise management strategies to generate abroad range of desired products: organic vegetables, plant based “classrooms,” nutritious hay, and wildlife habitat.

Here’s a brief peek into what it takes to make the farm a booming center for food and ecology.

Community Supported Agriculture Program

By the time we have rung in the New Year, CSA Farmer Dan O’Brien has already ordered his seeds, planned his field rotations, and created his planting timeline. Several weeks ago Dan sowed several hundred vegetable seeds indoors in starter trays sandwiched between heat mats and lights. He worked with a local grower in Pennsylvania to raise thousands of plants that will eventually find their way into our 7-acre CSA site. Within the last month, as soon as the soil could be worked, Dan was out preparing the field for planting. He has already sown hearty cool- loving crops like peas, potatoes, carrots, and beets.

In February Dan and DNS Land Management staff members Steve and Josh, built a 2,000 square foot hoop house. This unheated, protective structure will allow Dan to extend the season of certain crops like tomatoes and cucumbers. The hoop house enables these “high summer” crops to be transplanted out earlier in the spring and remain in the field longer in the fall. In addition to this new house, Dan has 2 other hoop houses that he will use for season extension and seed germination. We still have shares available for the 2013 CSA season. Please visit our website www.delawarenaturesociety.org under “conservation corner” for registration details.

CSA Farmer Dan O’Brien with his shiny, new hoop house. Photo by Steve Johnas.

Education Gardens

Grey winter months set Farm Program Coordinator Michele Wales to dreaming of purple carrots, orange eggplant, and hundreds of heirloom tomatoes in all colors but red. Striving to show the genetic diversity of common and not-so-common foods that can be grown in our region, Michele focuses primarily on growing heirloom varieties. The goal of the 1 ¼ -acre education garden is to show all stages of the plants’ life from seed to flower, to fruit, and back to seed. This area of the farm grows an endless list of earthly delights like strawberries, rhubarb, and grapes to tomatoes, basil, potatoes, saffron, and lots of flowers. Seeding begins in the dark days of winter in an 80-degree greenhouse space generously provided by Gateway Garden Center. Michele sowed close to 900 seeds in mid-March, will transplant the thriving seedlings in April, and bring them to the farm in May. The garden will come alive through the work of children and farm education staff sowing seeds and heeling in transplants after the danger of frost has passed.

Thanks to Gateway Garden Center in Hockessin (www.gatewaygardens.com) for the greenhouse space and seeds to help our gardens grow!

Farm Program Coordinator Michele Wales seeding heirloom tomatoes. Photo by Jim Wolfer.

Feed Hay Fields

In late January and early February, Farm Steward, Jim Wolfer keeps his eyes on the ground and ears tuned to weather forecasts. Jim is looking for snow-free acreage and temperatures that reach above the freezing point. During periods of freezing and thawing, Jim will sow the seeds of red clover in our 9-acres of feed hay fields. This is known as frost seeding and is a method that this plant needs for successful germination. By March, on dry ground days, he is mowing down crop “residue” like corn and sunflower stalks from last year as well as spreading our farm-generated compost. By late May he will be mowing the hay, bailing it, and storing over 15 TONS of it in the stone barn to feed our cows and sheep next winter.

Farm Steward Jim Wolfer surveying the winter hayfield. Photo by Dan O’Brien.

Native Warm Season Grass Meadows

In the late fall of 2012, Land Manager Dave Pro was drilling the seeds of over 15 species of native grasses and wildflowers into 25 rolling acres of former agricultural fields. For the last 15 years Dave has been working to transition farm fields into native meadows that provide rich habitat for ground nesting-birds, mammals, and a wide diversity of insects including native pollinators. Gearing up for the growing season, Dave spent hours in March mowing down last year’s growth to open the landscape to the sun’s rays and to control woody shrub invasion. In addition to mowing, these native meadows thrive and excel against competitors through the implementation of fire. Dave schedules the early spring prescribed burn by paying attention to several key factors: wind speed, wind direction, humidity, precipitation, and the emergence of new plant growth. Once these factors have aligned, a regional team of highly trained wildfire fighters descend upon the preserve to artfully and safely employ this management technique. If all of the necessary criteria are met Dave and his skilled crew will be setting fire to 6-acres of well established meadow as early as this Thursday, March 28 or a date to be determined the week of April 1. We invite you to witness this exciting event. Please call 302.239.2334 to register. Space is limited. This very spontaneous offer is FREE with details to be communicated as soon as we have them to share.

Land Manager Dave Pro keeping a few steps ahead of a meadow fire. Photo by Derek Stoner.

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

Photos by Hank Davis, DNS Board Member, Professional Photographer, and one of the 13 skilled avian surveyors on the 2013 Cuba trip.

This February, I had the pleasure of leading my second Delaware Nature Society bird survey trip to Cuba.  I led this trip for the first time in November of 2010 and wrote about it extensively on this blog.  You can see the previous posts at these links:  Cuban Bird Survey, Zapata Swamp, Cueva y Hacienda, Guanacabibes National Park, Valle de Vinales.

We had a similar schedule and agenda when compared to the 2010 trip, which was to visit a variety of national parks, preserves, and other areas to conduct bird surveys with Cuban biologists and ornithologists.  Our constant guide and lead biologist was Dr. Giraldo Alayon Garcia, who accompanied the DNS group in 2010.  He is the Caribbean’s leading authority on spiders and has described many new species to science.  Giraldo is also an excellent birder, biologist, and conservationist.  He was on many of the expeditions to document the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Cuba in the 1980’s and saw the bird several times on these long trips.

Our skilled team of 13 avian surveyors (all Delaware Nature Society members) were charged with the task of documenting species in many of Cuba’s most beautiful, wild, and biologically diverse places.  We ventured to four National Parks including Peninsula de Guanahacabibes, La Guira, Cienega de Zapata, and Cayo Guillermo.  We traveled the entire western half of the island from the far western tip at Maria la Gorda to the Cayo Coco area on the longest archipelago in the western hemisphere.  Our data went to the Caribbean Conservation Trust as well as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

In this post and another one to come, I am going to feature the “Top Ten Cuban Birds” that we found on our surveys.  It is a little arbitrary, but I picked these species because they were on our “most wanted list” to see, some of them are very rare, and most of them are Cuban endemics, meaning they only live in Cuba.  Since we found about 160 species of birds, picking the top ten was a little difficult, and I risk some disagreement from my group, but I judged the list also partly on what the group told me the wanted to see, as well as their reaction after seeing it.

#10 – Fernandina’s Flicker

Fernandina's Flicker is a rare woodpecker that only lives in Cuba.

Fernandina’s Flicker is a rare woodpecker that only lives in Cuba.

Fernandina’s Flicker is a beautiful, but rare woodpecker that lives in scattered places across Cuba.  This Cuban endemic species is estimated to only have a population of about 600-800 birds, making it one of the world’s most endangered woodpeckers.  We saw this one at it’s nest in La Guira National Park, at a place called Hacienda Cortina.

#9 – American Flamingo

The American Flamingo is always a popular bird to see in the wild.  It is the only Flamingo that lives in North America.

The American Flamingo is always a popular bird to see in the wild. It is the only Flamingo that lives in North America.

Populations of American Flamingo are doing well on Cuba.  We saw them by the hundreds in the Zapata Swamp and the Cayo Coco area, where they feed in shallow lagoons and bays.  Flamingos are pretty strange birds.  They honk like a goose, and sift their curved bill in the water to filter-feed for small aquatic organisms.

#8 – Cuban Tody

The Cuban Tody is a very small, colorful puffball of a bird that is common in Cuba.

The Cuban Tody is a very small, colorful puffball of a bird that is common in Cuba.

The Cuban Tody is a tiny bird that darts around forests, spotting prey to leap up and snatch with it’s orange bill.  They are habitat generalists, which is why they are still common, living in just about any kind of forest.  It is a Cuban endemic species, and is difficult to photograph because it is found in low-light conditions, stays in thick vegetation, and moves around quickly.  Hank Davis did a superb job photographing this one.  Todies only live in the West Indies.

#7 – Cuban Trogon

The Cuban Trogon is the national bird of Cuba.  This colorful species of trogon has a strange ratcheted tail, and is common across the island.

The Cuban Trogon is the national bird of Cuba. This colorful species of trogon has a strange ratcheted tail, and is common across the island.

Luckily, the Cuban Trogon, another endemic species to Cuba is common across the island.  It lives in forested areas at all elevations, and sits very still as it searches for insects, fruit, and flowers to eat.  It can hover while it feeds, and nests in cavities in trees.  We saw many of them on our bird surveys, but photographing them can be difficult.  It is the national bird of Cuba because its colors resemble those on the Cuban flag, with its blue head, white chest, and red belly.

#6 – Stygian Owl

Stygian Owl is a rare sight on Cuba, where it is an endangered species.  It is commonly killed on the island, since many people consider it a bad omen.

Stygian Owl is a rare sight on Cuba, where it is an endangered species. It is commonly killed on the island, since many people consider it a bad omen.

Stygian refers to “from the River Styx”.  The fact that this bird’s name refers to it being from a river in Hades does not help it’s reputation as a bad omen in Cuba.  Because of this, it is routinely persecuted on the island, which makes them very difficult to find in the wild.  The only places where you have a chance to see one on Cuba is in remote wild areas, such as the Zapata Swamp and Guanahacabibes Peninsula.  We found this one at Maria la Gorda, which is a very remote scuba diving resort surrounded by miles of wilderness, far from people.  It called one night after dinner, and we were able to find it and photograph it.  Stygian Owls live in parts of Central and South America, as well as the Greater Antilles, and are related to Long-eared and Short-eared Owls, its cousins in North America.

Look for part II of the “Top Ten Cuban Birds” post coming up soon, where I will feature numbers 1 through 5.

By Derek Stoner, Conservation Project Coordinator

The first Wood Frog egg masses of the season, observed in the Ashland Marsh on March 12.  Notice the tiny black dots, each of which is an individual Wood Frog egg.   Image by Derek Stoner.

The first Wood Frog egg masses of the season, observed in the Ashland Marsh on March 12. Notice the tiny black dots, each of which is an individual Wood Frog egg. Image by Derek Stoner.

The rains and warmer weather this week brought out the amphibians at Ashland, with Wood Frogs headlining the show.  On Tuesday there were dozens of male Wood Frogs lining the edges of the Ashland Marsh during the rain, uttering their distinctive “chuck-chuck” call.

By the end of the day, the quiet female Wood Frogs had laid the first egg masses of the season, and I counted at least 11 masses in one cluster.  Each female Wood Frog lays one ball-like cluster of eggs, which may contain up to four hundred individual eggs.  So the image above shows the potential for more than 4,400 tiny tadpoles to be produced!

Jim White, DNS Associate Director for Land and Biodiversity, and author of Amphibians and Reptiles of Delmarva, will be following up this post with a great blog about the Wood Frog mating activity.  For now, we encourage you all to get to the Ashland Marsh in the next few days to witness this spectacle of Wood Frogs– they don’t stick around too long!

In other Signs of Spring news, the first Tree Swallows of Spring were observed flying above the Ashland Lodge on Wednesday, March 13.