The COVID pandemic has impacted many, many aspects of our lives, but it has also impacted our environment in unexpected ways. Our state parks and preserves experienced a huge increase in visitation from people looking for safe and healthy activities outside of the home during lockdown. Ashland Nature Center was one of these welcome respites during our COVID-induced social distancing and is still a welcome sanctuary for those of us wishing to remain cautious during the spread of the Delta variant.
Interested in expanding your knowledge about the natural world? Enter the Delaware Master Naturalist program is it! This wonderful program has enabled many interested and energized citizens to participate in nature activities in a way that should give much back to our local environment. I was fortunate to be part of the second cohort during the summer of 2020. I was so motivated by the program, that in the middle of a heat wave last July, I decided to install a butterfly garden in my backyard. Not the best timing, but with constant attention to watering, all but one of my plants survived. Thanks to the many milkweed varieties I planted, I experienced a Monarch caterpillar boom that was completely unexpected. I checked on my “caterpillar” babies daily, watching them devour my milkweed plants, taking lots of pictures, and insuring their safe travels to a nearby plant for their chrysalis formation. One little guy even trekked over 60 feet to bind his chrysalis to my garage door keypad! However, very few of the many caterpillars matured into butterflies. I was reminded of the challenges of survival in the insect world…with storms, predators, and other odds stacked against them, it’s amazing that the population of Monarchs is still hanging in there.
So it was only fitting that I chose to work with the Ashland Butterfly House as my Naturalist project. I haven’t done anything exceptional, it was already a spectacular planting of native butterfly attracting plants thanks to previous supporters, but I have spent some serious hours weeding! Starting in the spring, I removed many of the weeds that had gotten a good foothold during the Covid summer of 2020. I had to learn which were unwanted weeds and which were fledgling native flowering plants, but got help from members of the staff and iNaturalist. As the plants grew, so did the weeds, so it’s been a continuous process of upkeep, but it looks pretty good right now, and requires less care with the many mature plants now taking up space.
Talking with Joe Sebastiani, Director of Ashland Nature Center, and few other Master Naturalists who wanted to work with the Butterfly House, we decided that some educational signage was needed to enhance the garden’s usefulness as an educational tool. We agreed on a model format and I had fun creating eight colorful laminated signs for specific plants that play host for certain butterflies and their caterpillars.
On my last maintenance visit to the garden, I experienced my first real “test” as a Master Naturalist. While I was weeding, a family and their two young daughters came into the Butterfly House, and I had the privilege of walking them through the lifecycle of butterflies and explaining how some butterfly species used only certain plants to rear their young. They were very attentive, loved the pictures on the signs, and thanked me for the “tour” of the garden…I was filled with Naturalist pride!
Now that the garden is fully enclosed with netting, butterflies can’t get inside (although some Pipevine Swallowtails found the Dutch pipevine poking through the netting and their caterpillars are chomping away on it). So, my next task is to go out and catch some butterflies and stock the garden with some local varieties. I have never done this before, but I am game to learn, so wish me luck! Visit Ashland Nature Center and discover the beauty that nature offers to all of us…especially the fluttering butterflies!
Deb Vickery is a Delaware Master Naturalist, Delaware Nature Society Volunteer and Guest Writer.