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All posts for the month July, 2015

By Dr. Ian Stewart, Ornithologist and Naturalist

Thanks to a generous donation, Ashland Nature Center and nearby Bucktoe Creek Preserve are hosting a bird banding project that the public is welcome to visit. Bird banding is an important tool for scientists and conservationists since tagging individuals helps us figure out if they remain in the same site year-round, or in the case of long-distance migrants, where they spend their summers and winters and which routes they take. Basically, birds are caught in fine nets erected along trails then carefully removed and fitted with a uniquely numbered metal band before being released. Because the birds’ welfare is the highest priority, we check the nets every 10-15 minutes and do not operate them on very windy or rainy days. Also, it requires many years of practice with extracting and banding birds before one can be granted a federal license to do so.

A Wood Thrush in a mist-net.

A Wood Thrush in a mist-net.

With the help of a crew of volunteer assistants (Steve, Angie, Kelley and Carol), we have caught over 150 birds from 25 species, primarily Gray Catbirds, Tufted Titmice and Northern Cardinals (and yes, they bite!), but also some really neat birds like Brown Thrasher, Willow Flycatcher and Northern Flicker. We obtain as much data as we can from each bird including its age, sex, body size and molt status to answer questions about how these vary between sites and different habitats. It’s much easier to work out the age or sex of bird species if you are actually holding them, and banding birds helps you notice many things you’ve never seen before. For example, the Tufted Titmouse in the top photo below is an adult, but the one in the bottom photo is a juvenile, as can be told by the yellow eye ring and yellow flanges (the fleshy corners of the beak left over from when it was a nestling).

An adult Tufted Titmouse.

An adult Tufted Titmouse.  Can you see the small tick just above the right side of the eye?

A juvenile Tufted Titmouse.

A juvenile Tufted Titmouse.

Also, the male Eastern Towhee in the bottom photo below was likely hatched last year (2014) since it still has some brown juvenile feathers on its head while the one in the top photo was likely hatched in 2013 or even earlier as it has a solid black head. Look at those amazing red eyes!

An adult Eastern Towhee.

An older adult Eastern Towhee.

A juvenile Eastern Towhee.

A younger Eastern Towhee.

Some features on certain birds are only evident when you see them up close. For instance, the bright red eye of this Red-eyed Vireo is hard to see in the wild because they usually forage quite high up in the trees. In the hand, the red eye is striking and you can also the see the small hook at the end of the vireo’s bill, a feature that distinguishes them from warblers.

A Red-eyed Vireo up close, where it is easy to see the red eye and the hooked bill.

A Red-eyed Vireo up close, where it is easy to see the red eye and the hooked bill.

Note that mist-netting is an unpredictable business and so if you visit the banding station, we can’t guarantee you will see a bird being caught and banded. Cooler mornings can produce over a dozen birds though we catch fewer birds on hot, humid days, probably because the birds are less active. Nevertheless, even on quieter days, several lucky visitors have seen some great birds, including Downy Woodpeckers and a Northern Flicker. Woodpeckers are especially interesting up close, as one can see their unusual toe arrangement with 2 toes pointing forward and 2 pointing backward, unlike the standard arrangement of 3 toes forward and 1 back. This helps woodpeckers climb up tree trunks, as does their stiffened, spiky tail feathers.

The underside of a Flicker showing its distinctive toe arrangement and spiky tail feathers.

The underside of a Flicker showing its distinctive toe arrangement and spiky tail feathers.

In addition to its scientific value, bird banding is a fantastic educational tool, allowing for both adults and children to see birds up close.  By providing this experience, the Delaware Nature Society is helping people better appreciate key bird characteristics like their feathers and differences between species in plumage color and the shape of their feet or beak.  We are also banding nestlings of a variety of species found breeding in our nest boxes, including Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, and House Wrens, but also Tufted Titmice and Carolina Chickadees. If we are lucky some of these may turn up as adults next year! Dozens of children attending our summer camps have enjoyed checking out the nest boxes for eggs and nestlings, and some have been lucky enough to hold a baby bird!

Happy campers at Ashland Nature Center holding baby Eastern Bluebirds.

Happy campers at Ashland Nature Center holding baby Eastern Bluebirds.

Banding takes place at Ashland Nature Center on Monday and Tuesday 8am -11 am, and at Bucktoe Creek Preserve 8am – 11am, and will run through September. There is no charge to attend the banding, but for non-DNS members visiting Ashland, a trail fee applies.  We hope to see you at the banding station soon!  Songbird migration has started, and you never know what will turn up in the nets.

By Matt Babbitt: Abbott’s Mill Nature Center Manager

Last week, staff at Abbott’s Mill Nature Center had the pleasure of spending two days working on land stewardship projects with 6 young women and 3 adult Mentors from The Nature Conservancy’s Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) Internship Program. This paid internship program brings students and adult Mentors from all over the country together for 4 weeks every summer to live and work in natural areas. During their time together, the groups assist the Nature Conservancy and their partners with projects such as trail maintenance, beach clean-ups, water quality monitoring, invasive species removal, ecological monitoring, and native species plantings. In addition to the full 35-hour work week, the groups visit 3 local colleges and participate in team building recreational activities on the weekend.

The LEAF team hiking on our accessible streamside boardwalk, looking for fish, turtles, and snakes in Johnson’s Branch.

The LEAF team hiking on our accessible streamside boardwalk, looking for fish, turtles, and snakes in Johnson’s Branch.

Our LEAF team members came from Bronx/Manhattan, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Chicago, and Wisconsin, but seemed to feel right at home in the muggy, buggy ecology of lower, slower Delaware.  Our first day together was spent orienting the team to the land and history of Abbott’s, repairing our leaky frog pond, moving a stone path walkway, and touring our preserved, working grist mill.

The LEAF team take a short break among the pines during our orientation hike.

The LEAF team take a short break among the pines during our orientation hike.

The frog pond had been leaking water since it unthawed this spring, which spelled bad news for the frogs who relied on it for habitat and reproduction. However, through a generous donation to Abbott’s in memory of Geraldine Constance Brown (Temin) Wilkerson, who grew up on the banks of Abbott’s Pond in the Depression Era, we were able to purchase a new liner and water pump to repair the leaks. The LEAF team helped us drain the lower pool, install the new liner and pump, and rework the rock wall and foot path that surround the pond.

LEAF interns working on emptying out the lower part of our frog pond to look for leaks.

LEAF interns working on emptying out the lower part of our frog pond to look for leaks.

After a long day of shoveling, landscaping, and frog catching, the LEAF team pitched tents and camped out at Abbott’s for the night. As soon as everyone’s tents were set up, and spider free, the team enjoyed a relaxing evening of singalongs accompanied by the ukulele, along with a campfire and s’mores, which was a first for many of the group. After the chocolate, graham, and mallow ran out, we wondered over to the Morton Meadow, across from Abbott’s Pond, where Abbott’s staff led an astronomy observation and storytelling session.

A LEAF Mentor enjoying the warmth of the campfire and the gooeyness of a s’more.

A LEAF Mentor enjoying the warmth of the campfire and the gooeyness of a s’more.

Our second day with the LEAF team was quite adventurous. The morning was spent canoeing Abbott’s Pond, with paddles, loppers, and saws in hand! After paddling the whole length of the pond and spotting Great Blue Herons, Green Herons, and a plethora of baby turtles, we headed into pond’s swampy headwaters. Amongst the cool shade of the swamp’s American White Cedars, the LEAF team bared mosquitos and sulfur infused detritus to help us clear out logs and branches that our resident beaver population had so meticulously placed to block the canoeing trail. This canoe trail was used the very next day by Abbott’s staff for the first of our 3-part Summer Canoe Series, which was a great success in large part to the work these ladies did.

After washing away all the swampy muck and grabbing a bite to eat, we headed over our Isaacs-Greene Preserve, a 62-acre forested buffer with a small pond and tax ditch stream, for the afternoon. In a mere two hours, these LEAF team helped us plant more than 20 trees along the bank of the tax ditch stream that runs through the middle of the preserve, and is an upstream tributary of Abbott’s Pond. These trees should help to reinforce the stream bank, while filtering nutrients and sediments from the nearby agricultural fields. Along the hike into the property, we were surprisingly greeted by hundreds of baby toads enjoying the shaded trails, and we found the shed from a 5 foot long Black Rat Snake.

A post-paddle LEAF team fashion show, sporting the latest gear in log and branch removal.

A post-paddle LEAF team fashion show, sporting the latest gear in log and branch removal.

This is the second year that Abbott’s has partnered with the local Nature Conservancy office in Milton to work with the LEAF program. We couldn’t have been more grateful for their positive attitudes, results-driven work ethic, and passion for the environment. The Nature Conservancy proudly reports a successful and direct impact in the lives of LEAF Alumni, as 96% go straight to college after high school, 91% have an increased awareness of conservation career paths, and 70% have changed the environmental behaviors of friends and family back home.

The LEAF Team, turned tree huggers, at our last tree planting of the day.

The LEAF Team, turned tree huggers, at our last tree planting of the day.

There are 3 ways that you can visit Abbott’s and see the fruit of their labor: 1. The frog pond, just like all of our trails, is open for visitation 7 days a week from dawn till dusk. 2. Sign up for a membership with the Delaware Nature Society, which includes free canoe rentals on Abbott’s Pond. 3. Join us in December for the annual Christmas Bird Count, which will be conducted in part on our Isaacs-Greene Preserve.

If you’d like to catch up with the rest of the LEAF teams’ adventures, you can follow @nature_delaware or #tncleaf2015 on social media. You can follow Abbott’s on Facebook and Instagram

By Joe Sebastiani, Ashland Nature Center Manager

West Texas is a land of few people, wide open spaces, and rugged mountains at the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert.  This desert extends far south into Mexico, and is far from a lifeless, brown expanse.  On the contrary, it is a land full of birds, wildlife, and a wide diversity of plants.  In the third week of April, I led a group of 11 DNS members to west Texas for a week of wildlife, wildflowers, and wild scenery. John Harrod, a Texas native and Dupont Environmental Education Center Manager was my co-leader and did a great job identifying the multitudes of wildflowers we saw.  West Texas had received a healthy dose of rain prior to our trip, and we were told it was the best wildflower bloom the area had seen in 30 years.  Lucky us!

Large areas of desert were awash in color during the DNS April trip to West Texas.  Pictured here is Bitter Rubberweed and Verbena.  Photo by John Harrod.

Large areas of desert were awash in color during the DNS April trip to West Texas. Pictured here is Bitter Rubberweed and Verbena. Photo by John Harrod.

Our trip focused on exploration of the Davis Mountains and Big Bend National Park.  These are mountainous areas that rise above the low-lying Chihuahuan Desert that are cooler, wetter, and contain stands of pine/oak/juniper forest.  The first part of our trip found us in the Davis Mountains which are a hotbed of bird activity.  We focused on finding some of the specialties of the area and stayed at Davis Mountains State Park which has a nice bird feeding station.  This is the most reliable spot in the world to see the Montezuma Quail, one of the most sought-after birds of our trip.  In the days leading up to our visit, however, it had not been seen.  Luckily, while we lingered at the feeding station on our first morning, a beautiful male waddled down out of the grassland and into plain view below the feeders.

The male Montezuma Quail certainly has to be one of the most bizarre-looking birds in North America.  Photo by John Harrod.

The male Montezuma Quail certainly has to be one of the most bizarre-looking birds in North America. Photo by John Harrod.

This trip was timed to take advantage of relatively cool temperatures, the peak of the cactus bloom, as well as the onset of bird migration.  It made for a very full and exciting adventure with many thrilling discoveries.  The cacti bloom was a treat, and some of the names bring to mind painful images. Horse crippler, devils’ head, prickly pear, pincushion, and fishhook cactus all conjure dense thorns and bloody fingers.  Seeing these amazing plants in bloom, however is a different story.  Most sport large, lovely, colorful flowers, and some have names that reflect this quality, such as rainbow cactus and strawberry cactus.  One of the most abundant in the Davis Mountains is the Claret cup cactus, which is eye-catching, and set a high bar early in the trip.

The Claret Cup Cactus was abundant and beautiful around the Davis Mountains.  Photo by John Harrod.

The Claret Cup Cactus was abundant and beautiful around the Davis Mountains. Photo by John Harrod.

Part of our visit to the Davis Mountains included a guided tour of the botanic gardens at the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute.  Our plant identification skills were boosted considerably by their very knowledgeable and friendly staff.  We ended up staying there the whole day, and hiked into a beautiful canyon and to the top of a rocky hilltop for amazing views and a geological interpretive experience of the area.

Our group was warmly welcomed at the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute.  Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Our group was warmly welcomed at the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

The second half of the trip was an adventure deeper into the Chihuahaun Desert and much further from civilization.  The much-anticipated Big Bend National Park rose in the distance as we neared it.  It’s tall desert peaks began as small hills, but arose as fiery, wild and craggy snags as we approached.  This is one of the most beautiful places in the desert southwest, if not the entire United States.

As we entered Big Bend National Park, we were in awe of the wildflower covered desert and gorgeous mountain scenery.  Photo by John Harrod.

As we entered Big Bend National Park, we were in awe of the wildflower covered desert and gorgeous mountain scenery. Photo by John Harrod.

On our first full day in the park, half of the group hiked 11 miles around Emory Peak while the rest of the group ventured to the west end of the park.  The avian reward of the 11-mile hike is the chance to find one of the rarest birds in the United States…the Colima Warbler.  This small brown bird lives mostly in the mountains of northern Mexico, but it is also found in the oak forests of the Chisos Mountains in the park…the only place they nest in the U.S.  After speaking with multiple people who where hiking the trail opposite us who had ALL seen a few of the warblers, the pressure was on to find it.  We found ourselves in the spot where they are most likely to be heard and seen.  (Click below to hear the song).

It was a steep slope of dense oak high up on the mountain.  We heard two of the birds singing, but could not find them.  We zig-zagged up and down the switchback trails to get a look.  Finally, it was singing very close, and was in plain view!  Everyone got a wonderful look at it, and we breathed a sigh of relief.

To see a Colima Warbler in the United States, you must hike the trails around Emory Peak in Big Bend National Park.  The oak forests here are the only place in our country to find one.  Photo by Joe Sebastiani

To see a Colima Warbler in the United States, you must hike the trails around Emory Peak in Big Bend National Park. The oak forests here are the only place in our country to find one. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

After we all saw the Colima Warbler, we excitedly breathed a big sigh of relief!

After we all saw the Colima Warbler, we excitedly breathed a big sigh of relief!

Meanwhile, the other half of the group was having fun along the Rio Grande.  This river courses through high-walled canyons in sections of the park, and it is extremely dramatic.  The only disappointment is the size of the river itself, which is pitifully small compared to what it once was.  Most of the water is siphoned off for human uses before it reaches the park.

The Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park was about the size of the Brandywine River.  Photo by John Harrod.

The Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park was about the size of the Brandywine River. Photo by John Harrod.

View through "The Window", which is a short walk from where we stayed at Big Bend National Park.  Photo by John Harrod.

View through “The Window”, which is a short walk from where we stayed at Big Bend National Park. Photo by John Harrod.

We spent 3 glorious days in Big Bend National Park, learning about the geology, plants, birds, and other wildlife, and took in the scenery around every curve of the paths and roads we traveled.  After we left the park, we stayed at the famous Gage Hotel in Marathon, Texas.  This hotel combines Texas, Cowboy, and Mexican architecture, art, and culture with luxurious accommodations and food.  What a top-notch way to end the trip!

One of the many splendid corners of the Gage Hotel.  Photo by John Harrod.

One of the many splendid corners of the Gage Hotel. Photo by John Harrod.

This week-long Delaware Nature Society trip will be offered again in April of 2016.  If you are interested, please contact us at 302-239-2334 ext. 134 to be added to the list of interested persons.  More information will be available soon.