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All posts for the month June, 2015

By Alice Mohrman, Education Coordinator, Abbott’s Mill Nature Center

A summer paddling expedition in Abbott’s Pond led us upstream to discover the hidden treasures in the cool shade of Johnson’s Branch.

Abbott's Pond

Abbott’s Pond

Point west and follow the expansive water garden of green heart-shaped waxy leaves dotted with the stout yellow flowers.  This hardy, native perennial is spatterdock, Nuphar advena, also known as Yellow Water Lily.  Used in traditional medicine, and a favorite edible for muskrat and beaver, this plant colonizes shallow water where the thick roots anchor into the muddy bottom of the pond.  The bulb-shaped flowers are pollinated by beetles and produce seeds for a variety of waterfowl.

Spatterdock bloom.

Spatterdock bloom.

Ebony Jewelwing,  Calopteryx maculate, are the graceful, yet acrobatic damselfly companions that dance beside your canoe as you meander along the shore toward the narrows.  These  “perchers”  often wait  patiently on plants at the stream edge before taking a quick sojourn over the water to capture gnats and other small insects .  Look for the territorial males, sporting a blue-green thorax and abdomen with jet black wings, courting brownish females with a distinct white patch or “stigma” on the tip of each wing.

Ebony Jewelwing damselfly.

Ebony Jewelwing damselfly.

A distinct canopy of trees beyond the active beaver lodge offers interest and respite from the sun.  The Atlantic White Cedar, Chamaecyparis thyoides, is a towering, ram-rod straight sentinel growing  in the bog at the entrance to the stream.  An extremely rot resistant evergreen species, this cypress (not really a cedar) tree is  able to reach great heights while growing in poorly drained acidic soil!   Two of the tallest Atlantic White Cedars are found in Milford, DE and check in at an impressive  72 and 76 feet  (DE Big Trees).

Atlantic White Cedar on the edge of Abbott's Pond.

Atlantic White Cedar on the edge of Abbott’s Pond.

A Prothonotary Warbler, Protonotaria citrea,  or Golden Swamp Warbler,  sings a loud, ringing version of  “zweet zweet zweet zweet zweet!” as we navigating the shallows, roots and branches.  A soft “psh-psh-psh” sound often brings these curious wood-warblers closer to view.  For nesting, this summer resident chooses a tree cavity, usually about 6 foot high, over or near water, to brood a large clutch with up to eight eggs.

The gorgeous Prothonotary Warbler gets its name from long-ago Roman Catholic clerks who wore bright yellow robes.

The gorgeous Prothonotary Warbler gets its name from long-ago Roman Catholic clerks who wore bright yellow robes.

Our sample of flora and fauna would not be complete without mentioning  Castor canandensis:  the beaver.  While working the night shift, these engineering animals constructed at least three structural barriers to for canoes.  We enjoyed the challenge of maneuvering  over, through and around these dams-which are not easy to deconstruct without heavy equipment!  After a beaver fells a tree, it trims off the large branches and drags it to the dam site.  The logs are forced into the mud with the wide trunk facing downstream.  The remaining braches and leaves, or crowns of the trees,  are positioned into the current to trap the silt and debris which widens the structure.  The beavers add  sticks, stones and mud to strengthen the dam, block the water flow and create a new wetland!

Beavers at their dam.

Beavers at their dam.

By Ian Stewart, Naturalist

As one of the team of DNS ‘weekend naturalists’ I have enjoyed sharing some amazing natural sights and scenes around Ashland Nature Center with excited visitors, many of whom were exploring the trails for the first time. Probably my favorite aspect of doing the walks every weekend is observing the gradual changes in the scenery as the trees or bushes leaf out and begin to produce berries or nuts, and the most interesting changes have been in the wildflowers. At present, the yellow invasive species like celandine and daffodils are gone and have been replaced with a new set of flowers, many of which are native.

A Spiderwort with its flowers open.

A Spiderwort with its flowers open.

The most striking wildflower currently in bloom is the Virginia Spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana). This is a small perennial flower about 30 cm tall which grows in clumps in the damp soils of the floodplain. It has 3 large blue or purple petals and 6 bright yellow stamens, and usually only flowers in the morning. The flower stalks have the curious habit of twisting around each other so if you visit late in the day the Spiderwort appears to be strangling itself! The Spiderwort was one of the first native plants described and was brought back to Europe in 1629 during an early botanical expedition.

A Spiderwort with its flowers closed.

A Spiderwort with its flowers closed.

Another small native perennial flower found along the damp trails and boardwalk is the Virginia Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum), which is also known as Eastern Waterleaf. It appears in late spring and can be easy to miss as it is only about 10 cm tall, but is very distinctive once known as the stamens and style (male and female reproductive organs) protrude from the corolla and give it a delicate, lace-like appearance.

Virginia Waterleaf is a beautiful, June-flowering plant found along the Red Clay Creek floodplain.

Virginia Waterleaf is a beautiful, June-flowering plant found along the Red Clay Creek floodplain.

Another small and delicate-looking species found along the pathway near the visitor center is the Foamflower (Tiarella species). The scientific name means ‘little tiara’ and refers to the pointed crown-like flowers which branch off from the stem.

Foamflower is found in our planted native gardens around the nature center.

Foamflower is found in our planted native gardens around the nature center.

The previous two species are quite conspicuous because the fluffy white flowers develop from a long stem which protrudes far above the leaves. A harder flower to spot but instantly recognizable once known is the Narrow-leaved or Pointed blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustofolium). This perennial native species is found alongside dry grassy trails and is actually in the Iris family but has long, thin grass-like leaves which mostly obscure the petals. The petals are only a few centimeters across but are a pretty light blue color with flattened ends and a diagnostic pointed tip on each one.

Blue-eyed grass is a small Iris that can be found quite easily once you know it is there.  Otherwise, it can remain somewhat hidden in an among other bigger plants.

Blue-eyed grass is a small Iris that can be found quite easily once you know it is there. Otherwise, it can remain somewhat hidden in an among other bigger plants.

Try stopping by Ashland sometime soon – with a little bit of searching you should be able to find all four of these attractive native flowers!

Ian Stewart will be conducting bird banding sessions at Ashland Nature Center every Monday and Tuesday, 8am-11am, weekly through September.  He will also be bird banding at Bucktoe Creek Preserve every Wednesday and Thursday, 8am-11am, weekly through September.  Drop by to see what he is catching in the nets, and witness science in action!

By John Harrod: Manager, Dupont Environmental Education Center

Blooming right now in the Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge is a great shrub of utility and beauty. The common elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis), also known as American elder, can be found throughout Delaware and along the Eastern U.S. from Canada to Florida. Elderberry is a pioneer species and sprouts rather quickly in areas of disturbance. Its haunts are wet areas including stream banks, ditches, moist meadows, marshes and swamps, which is why it can be found in our refuge.

Common Elderberry blooming along the boardwalk trail at the Dupont Environmental Education Center.  Photo by John Harrod

Common elderberry blooming along the boardwalk trail at the Dupont Environmental Education Center. Photo by John Harrod

This deciduous multi-stemmed shrub tends to have an arching habit and grows to 12 feet tall. Elderberry is quite vigorous and responds to pruning well, and will become quite dense through sucker growth making it a nice screen. Carpenter bees and mason bees tunnel into its soft pith of broken stems to construct nests for their young.

Common elderberry produces masses of white flowers in large umbels. The flowers are quite fragrant and attract many pollinating insects. The flowers are sometimes used to make elderflower water which is used in perfumes.

A close-up view of the Common Elderberry flower.  Photo by John Harrod.

A close-up view of the common elderberry flower. Photo by John Harrod.

After the blooms, elderberry produces fruits that are relished by at least 50 kinds of birds including American Robin, Cedar Waxwing, and Tufted Titmouse. People enjoy them too. Raw elderberries have an unpleasant taste and contain small amounts of poisonous alkaloids, so cooking is the way to go. The heat of cooking removes the toxins and improves the taste leading the way to delectables like jelly, preserves, pies, and wine.

The small fruits of the elderberry, which we will see later this summer, are eaten by a wide variety of birds.  Photo by H. Zell.

The small fruits of the elderberry, which we will see later this summer, are eaten by a wide variety of birds. Photo by H. Zell.

The refuge is open dawn to dusk daily, so come out and see the elderberry for yourself as well as the many other bloomers including the sweet scented Sweetbay Magnolia. While there, stop inside the DuPont environmental Education Center and ask a naturalist to lead you on a walk to find more plants.

By Hazel Shinholt, Abbott’s Mill Nature Center Teacher/Naturalist

Warm weather is upon us and we see all kinds of insects scurrying about at Abbott’s Mill Nature Center.  One of the insects you may have walked right by (maybe even walked on) and never noticed is the antlion.   Antlions are in the family Myrmeleontidae and order Neuroptera.  They undergo complete metamorphosis.  The larvae look nothing like the adult.  The adults have wings and can look similar to a damselfly. The most noticeable differences are that the antlion has longer antennae that are clubbed at the end and the vein pattern in their wings is different from the damselfly.  The adult antlion is nocturnal but the larval stage is very active during the day.

Antlion Larva showing its big grasping mouthparts that is uses to subdue small insects that fall into its funnel-shaped trap.

Antlion Larva showing its big grasping mouthparts that is uses to subdue small insects that fall into its funnel-shaped trap.

It is larval stage of the antlion that I find most fascinating!  Antlion larvae are ominous looking creatures. They are gray/brown in color, with an oval shaped body covered in bristles, have short legs and large mandibles.  We have many near our meadow habitat at Abbott’s Mill Nature Center.

The Antlion larva waits for prey to drop into the bottom of the funnel-shaped trap, submerged in the sand.

The Antlion larva waits for prey to drop into the bottom of the funnel-shaped trap, submerged in the sand.

Antlion larvae dig a cone-shaped “pit” in loose sandy or dry soil (look for soil that looks like a rain drop hit it and left a cone-shaped impression in the soil).  The antlion buries itself in the bottom of the pit and waits for its next meal to arrive. Only part of its head is visible at the bottom of the pit.  When an ant or other small insect crawls near the edge of the trap, the loose soil gives way and the prey falls into the “pit of death.”    When the prey reaches the bottom, the antlion then grabs the prey with its strong mandibles and drags it under the soil.  It pierces the prey and feasts on the body fluid of the prey.  The antlion has no use for the carcass of the prey and flicks it out of the pit and the cycle begins again.