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Ian Stewart

Every fall birdwatchers throughout the eastern United States wait anxiously by their computers for an email containing this year’s Winter Finch Forecast http://jeaniron.ca/2018/wff18.htm. For almost 20 years now Ron Pittaway, a former naturalist at Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario Canada, has been predicting whether this group of small, seed-eating birds that breed in Ontario remain there during the winter based upon how successful the cone crop was that summer. Simply put, if the trees produced a lot of seeds then the finches will have enough food to survive the winter and will stay up north, but if the cone crop was poor they will have to fly south to find food and will ‘irrupt’ into the northern United States or maybe even further south.

Remarkably, Ron’s forecast is usually correct so local birders were thrilled to read his prediction that finches would be travelling south this winter because the cone crop in Canada was poor. Sure enough, about 2 weeks ago people throughout Delaware and south-eastern Pennsylvania started seeing flocks of Purple Finches at their feeders! These look a bit like our resident House Finches but the males are raspberry-colored over their whole body while the females and immature birds are heavily streaked below and have white stripes on their face. Purple Finches are attracted to black oil sunflower seed, especially if it is piled on a horizontal platform feeder.

A flock of Purple Finches at a platform feeder

The Delaware Nature Society’s bird banding program has confirmed that this is an irruption year for Purple Finches. So far this fall we have banded no fewer than 40 of these birds, compared with just 5 in the winter of 2016 and none at all last winter.

Male House Finch (left) and Purple Finch (right) banded this fall

Now people across our region are seeing a second species of winter finch at their feeders, the Pine Siskin. This small, streaky finch has yellowy-green wing patches and a very thin beak which it uses to pry nyjer (thistle) seeds from finch socks or hanging feeders with narrow holes.

Pine Siskin feeding on ground (Photograph by Hank Davis)

The thin beak of a Pine Siskin

Whisper it quietly but this winter we may see two more highly-prized finches which usually remain far to our north. The first of these is the Redpoll, a small streaky finch with a red forehead that flocks in weedy fields and congregates at nyjer feeders. The second is the majestic Evening Grosbeak, a striking yellow, black and white version of our familiar Cardinal which is attracted to platform feeders baited with sunflower seed

All of the above winter finches readily come to bird feeders and best way to attract them to your yard is to provide a variety of seeds in different types of feeders, like hanging tubes of either black oil sunflower or nyjer coupled with platform feeders filled with sunflower seeds or millet. Try visiting Wild Birds Unlimited in Hockessin for a large selection of seed mixes and feeders.

Flock of Siskins at a hanging feeder (Photograph by Hank Davis)

Another two irruptive winter finches that are much sought after by birdwatchers are the crossbills. The Red Crossbill tends to occur in pines and the White-winged Crossbill in spruces and larches. These intriguing birds are unique in that their upper and lower beaks are ‘crossed’ and are used to prise open pine cone scales to get to the seed within. Crossbills do not usually come to seed feeders but if you want to attract them you could try pulling the old ‘salt block trick’. Apparently they are very fond of salt and can be attracted to platform feeders using chunks of the salt blocks that farmers leave out for cattle and horses!

The winter of 2018/2019 could be a memorable year for winter finches in Delaware, so be sure to take full advantage of it. The best places to search are weedy fields and stands of cone-bearing pine trees in public parks or cemeteries, but you are just as likely to see them at the feeders in your back yard or the Ashland Nature Center bird blind. And maybe consider dropping by our free bird banding sessions to see if you are lucky enough to see a winter finch up close. Bird banding takes place through November every Monday at Ashland Nature Center and every Wednesday at Bucktoe Creek Preserve near Kennett Square, 8am-11am.

 

Ian Stewart

Jewelweed is a colorful native annual wildflower that is common in damp marshy areas where it grows as a thin bush about 4 feet high. It is also known as ‘touch-me-not’ because of its curious habit of expelling its projectile seeds when the flowers are handled or brushed against. Jewelweed is a classic folk remedy because the juice of its leaves and stems is a well-known antidote to stings and rashes from stinging nettle, which it often grows close to.

Jewelweed growing along the boardwalk at Ashland

Many Delawareans are familiar with jewelweed as it is often found in shaded suburban gardens and parks, but few people realize that there are two species and they usually grow right next to each other! The most common is spotted jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), which is also known as orange jewelweed. This has bright orange petals densely covered with red spots and a long ‘nectar spur’ which curls along the bottom of the flower. The second, less-common species is yellow jewelweed (Impatiens pallida), which is also known as pale jewelweed. This has larger, yellow flowers with only a smattering of red spots and a shorter nectar spur which dangles downward. The leaves of yellow jewelweed have more veins and are more deeply toothed than those of the orange jewelweed. In my experience, spotted jewelweed outnumbers yellow by about 5 to 1.

Side by side views of spotted (left) and yellow (right) jewelweed showing the differences in petal pattern, the length and angle of the nectar spur, and leaf venation

Jewelweed is pollinated by both hummingbirds and bees and watching these insects crawl into the depths of the flower to access the nectar pooled up in the spur is a fun way to spend a sunny afternoon! If you’re very lucky you may get to see a hummingbird feeding from the nectar spur.

A bee burrows into a jewelweed flower in search of nectar

The bee’s back is now coated in pollen from the pollen stalk dangling above it. The bee may now pollinate the next jewelweed it enters!

Both jewelweeds have a long blooming season from late spring through the early fall and are an attractive native wildflower to plant in a damp, shaded corner of your yard to attract pollinator insects and hummingbirds.

Learn more about how you can garden for native plants and wildlife by certifying your yard as a wildlife habitat through the Delaware Nature Society

https://www.delawarenaturesociety.org/what-we-do/protecting-habitats-wildlife/garden-for-wildlife/

 

Ian Stewart

Migration is a fascinating aspect of animal biology. Each spring and fall, millions of birds, mammals and insects fly thousands of miles to get to either their breeding or wintering grounds. Migration can be challenging to follow however, as many of these animals migrate at night and travel quickly. There are several methods scientists use to track migration but a new collaborative method has recently emerged: the Motus system.

The Bucktoe Motus tower

The Motus system is an international network of automated towers which detect any animal fitted with a special small tag within a 15km range (‘Motus’ = Latin for ‘movement’). Since each tag emits a unique signal it is possible to track the movement of individual animals as they pass by one of more towers. The great majority of animals fitted with tags are birds but tags have also been placed on bats and large insects like dragonflies or even butterflies! The Motus network allows scientists to collect data on tagged animals to help them find out how variables like weather and the animal’s age, sex, and physical condition affect the timing and speed of their movements. It also aids conservation efforts by identifying key areas where animals stop to feed and rest during migration which can then be protected.

There are over 200 towers spread across the world, most of which are in North America (see the map on the Motus homepage www.motus.org). In the summer of 2017 a team of dedicated field biologists erected a line of towers all the way across Pennsylvania. The towers are so close together that their detection ranges overlap, meaning that they would pick up every tagged animal that migrates north or south anywhere in the entire state!

Distribution of Motus towers across PA and DE

Thanks to generous funding from the Starrett Foundation and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources via the Willistown Conservation Trust, a Motus tower was erected at Bucktoe Creek Preserve near Kennett Square in August 2017 as part of this line and has been recording 24/7 ever since! In the fall of 2017 it detected 7 thrushes, 3 warblers, a woodcock and a bat, all presumably heading south for the winter. In the spring of 2018 it detected a thrush and 4 shorebirds, all likely heading north to breed.

Another remarkable feature of the Motus system is that much of the data is open-access and can be viewed by anyone with the Internet. To see what animals are being detected follow these 4 simple steps.

1. Visit the homepage at www.motus.org then scroll down to see a map of the world with a yellow dot representing each tower.

2. Zoom in to find the tower you’re interested in (e.g. Bucktoe Creek) and click the dot. A box will then open telling you the name of the tower and its location plus the contact details of the organization overseeing it. The bottom row gives the number of tags detected by that tower (if there have been any) with ‘table/timeline’ in parentheses next to it.

3. Click on ‘table’ and a new page will open with several columns including the date each tag was detected plus the ID# of that tag (in blue text) and the species it was placed on.

4. Click on the ID# to reveal the date and place where the animal was tagged, and then if you want to explore further, either click on ‘table’ in the bottom row to see a list of towers at which that bird was detected, or ‘timeline’ to see what time the animal passed by the tower and how long it stayed. My own favorite is to click on ‘map’ to show the route the animal took!

Every year more Motus towers are erected throughout North America and they are also starting to spread across other continents. The number of tagged animals is also steadily increasing and every time one is detected it adds to our understanding of animal migration. Watch this space for updates from the Bucktoe tower!

By Ian Stewart

The buzz around this year’s Native Plant Sale is building to fever pitch! Our plant sale comes at the perfect time as we have finally emerged from the frigid gloom of an unusually long cold winter to find colorful wildflowers emerging all across the state. These ‘spring ephemerals’ are so-named because they only flower for a fairly short time since they start losing the sunlight once the trees leaf out.

We are fortunate to have a lot of fairly common attractive native plants in Delaware, and sometimes these get taken for granted. This is a pity, as several have some surprises in store if you look at them closely. Trout Lilies are a perennial often found growing in clumps which get their name because their mottled leaves resemble the sides of a Brook Trout, a freshwater fish. However, they take between 4 and 7 years to mature so the great majority of the lilies you see don’t produce a flower and have just a single leaf (top photo). Only the older, flowering plants have two leaves (second top). The beautiful nodding Lily flowers are harder to find but tend to occur in small colonies which are often visited by insects (bottom photos).

The familiar Mayapple has a similar subtlety. This distinctive umbrella-shaped wildflower of shady forest floors is often found in dense clusters of what look like identical plants, but if you look closely you will see that some have a forked, Y-shaped stem whereas most have just a single stem (below). Only the Y-shaped stems produce a flower then later the apple-like fruit. Mayapples are actually misnamed, as in May they still only have the white flower, which is found in the base of the fork. The hanging ‘apple’ doesn’t appear until later in the summer, and despite the name, is not pleasant to eat and may even be poisonous so we do not recommend that you try it.

Delaware is blessed with a kaleidoscope of beautiful native wildflowers in our area and below are a few of my favorites (from top, Virginia Bluebell, Cardinal Flower, Great Lobelia, Butterfly Weed).

These beautiful wildflowers are available at a reasonable price at the Native Plant Sale so if you want to able to observe these natural wonders in your own back yard just come on by. As well as their visual appeal they are popular with beneficial pollinator insects like bees and butterflies, so now you can have an idyllic native garden and help nature at the same time!

The Plant Sale is held at Coverdale Farm Preserve (543 Way Rd, Greenville, Delaware) Thursday May 3rdand Friday May 4th from 3pm to 7pm (member days) and Saturday May 5th (10am – 4pm) and Sunday May 6th (11am – 3pm) (open to public). Free admission if you just want to come and browse! Credit cards, checks and cash accepted. Click on the link below for more details.

http://www.delawarenaturesociety.org/NativePlantSale#.WuijZi7wa7Q