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Ian Stewart

The global Great Backyard Bird Count took place from February 16th to the 19th and was a huge success. Despite its misleading name, participants counted every bird they saw no matter how far they were from home, with more than 6,000 bird species recorded across the world from over 160,000 checklists! Delaware Nature Society played its part with 10 people joining Joe Sebastiani and Matt Babbitt on a bird-filled tour of Port Penn Wetlands, the Aquatic Resources Education Center, Bombay Hook NWR, and Port Mahon Road, finding over 50 species in the process including a rare Tree Swallow.

Although the global comparisons are fun, what’s really fascinating is to sift through the species and checklist totals from each US state (https://ebird.org/gbbc/region/US/regions?yr=cur&m=). The top 3 in terms of species seen were California (370), Texas (358) and Florida (288) with Delaware coming in 24th with a very respectable 145 species. The top 3 in terms of checklists submitted were again California and Texas (8,113 and 6,389 respectively) and New York (6,154) with Delaware coming in 37th with a decent 709.

DNS Members enjoying a duck extravaganza at Port Penn

But wait, I hear you cry! Surely this is unfair! California, Texas and Florida are all large states with extensive oceanic coastlines and inland water bodies and because of their southern latitude have resident tropical birds that we can only dream of. Furthermore, large parts of these states have mild or even warm winters so their birdlife gets supplemented by migrants that summered much further north. California, Texas and New York all contain huge numbers of people which presumably translates to lots of birders so it’s hardly a surprise that these 3 states produce the largest numbers of checklists.

I decided to see how Delaware fared during the GBBC once you take into account our small population (ranked 45th in the nation) and size (ranked just 49th!). To do this, I simply divided the number of species seen and checklists submitted from each state by their population (in millions) and size (total land area).

Sure enough, once you control for population size (as a crude estimate of the number of birders) we jump to second in the nation!

State Species per 1M persons
1. Alaska 158
2. Delaware 152
3. Wyoming 147
50. New York 9

And when you take into account our small size, Delaware recorded the second highest number of species in the country.

State Species per 1000 square miles
1. Rhode Island 74
2. Delaware 58
3. Connecticut 24
50. Alaska 0.2

The number of checklists is also an interesting statistic although obviously they aren’t all created equal. One checklist may summarize birds seen by a large group of experienced birders during an intense 6-hour search of a large, rural, mixed-habitat wildlife preserve while another could be birds seen at an urban backyard feeder by a relative novice during a 15 minute coffee break. Still, when you account for population size, we generated the third highest number of checklists in America.

State Checklists per 1M persons
1. Vermont 1503
2. Maine 918
3. Delaware 745
50. Nevada 119

And when you take into account our small size, Delaware produced the third highest number of checklists in the US!

State Checklists per 1000 square miles
1. New Jersey 325
2. Connecticut 292
3. Delaware 285
50. Alaska 1

Admittedly, trying to boil down differences between state bird lists based on just their size or population is simplistic. The dramatic differences between states in their habitat diversity and latitude and longitude means you are never comparing like with like. For example, birders in coastal states see large numbers of seabirds and shorebirds which are hard to find further inland. Freshwater lakes or marshes in the south will have more waterbirds than those in the frozen north. Plus, even though some states are huge a large proportion of their area is inhabited by very few people let alone birders, and so only a small proportion receives coverage. I’m sure there are many more bird-related differences between states you can think of yourself.

But it’s these exact same caveats that make Delaware such a fantastic place to live if you like birds! Because we are mid-latitude we get a sprinkling of unusual birds from further north plus a few rarities from further south. We have freshwater, seawater, estuaries, lakes and ponds, marshes, plowed fields and pasture, pine woods, deciduous woods, urban habitats, suburbs and a big open sky. This diversity of habitats was probably the main reason the Delaware GBBC produced such an amazing diversity of birds despite our small population and size. To all the Delaware birders who contributed to the GBBC (and you know who you are) I say well done! We’re in the Top 3!

If you want to continue to enjoy birds, why not come along on these upcoming DNS events and bird walks?

Dinner and Owls

February 28
5:30pm
$20/$25
Coverdale Farm

Led by Jim White and Courtney McKinley. Get close up looks at the rare Long-eared Owl, and search for other owls like Screech and Great Horned Owls. Dinner and an owl presentation are included too!

Frogs and Woodcocks

March 28
5:30pm
$15/$20
Coverdale Farm

Led by Jim White.Take a walk in the evening to find chorusing frogs and see the amazing display of the American Woodcock.

Tuesday Bird Walks (April/May)

8am, Middle Run Natural Area
Free, just meet in the parking lot

Thursday Bird Walks (April/May)

8am,Ashland Nature Center
Free, just meet in the parking lot

 

Autumn among the beeches

Ian Stewart

If life is getting you down or you’re feeling particularly stressed why not take a gentle afternoon stroll through a beech wood? Walking through a beech wood in the fall is a serene experience that will instantly melt away your troubles. And if you look closely, the beeches have a few surprises in store…..

The American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) is a fairly common tree across almost all of the eastern United States and is easily recognized by its smooth, pale gray bark and its above-ground ‘knees’ formed by the tops of its shallow roots. We have several stands of old, large beech trees around our DNS sites because early settlers tended to leave them alone as they often grow on hillsides which aren’t attractive sites for home building or farming, and also because their hard wood is difficult to cut.

At this time of year the ground beneath a beech wood is littered with a carpet of their golden leaves and if you wait long enough you will see a variety of mammals and birds rustling though them in search of fallen beech nuts. These distinctive triangular nuts emerge in pairs from their tough, furry husks when ripe and are beloved by deer, squirrels and Blue Jays and were apparently the favored food of the extinct Passenger Pigeon. Beech nuts are edible to humans once they have been peeled although they are apparently bitter and may even be toxic in large quantities so we do not recommend that you eat them.

Part of the reason beech woods are so attractive to walk through is that they are remarkably open, with very little understory of bushes or shrubs to navigate through. This is because beech trees are thought to be allelopathic, meaning they exude a chemical into the soil around them which inhibits the growth of other plants. Sometimes the only plant you see growing near a beech tree is a ring of ‘root sprouts’ growing around its trunk, which is a direct way through which beech trees spread in addition to their nuts.

Still, despite their placid outward appearance beech woods are tinged with intrigue. If you get down on your hands and knees you will notice that most of the trees have a circle of mysterious brown weedy stems around their base. These are known as Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) and are among a handful of plants that don’t photosynthesize but instead live parasitically by burrowing into the roots of beech trees and extracting their nutrients.

So please take the time to explore a beech wood this fall, but be sure to appreciate the small struggles going on underneath these giant trees!

Ian Stewart

American Goldfinches are one of my favorite birds. Their scientific name, Spinus tristis, translates as ‘Sad bird of thorn bushes’ and derives from their mournful rubber-duck like ‘squeak’ call. Personally, I think this name is unfair, as Goldfinches always seem such happy, colorful characters (like the female pictured below) with their jaunty, bouncy flight and excited twittering. They are common birds which can lead to them being overlooked and yet they have two major surprises under their wing.

The first is that they breed very late in the summer. Once you get past mid-August only a handful of birds are still breeding in Delaware but the Goldfinch is one of these select few, along with the related Indigo Bunting and Blue Grosbeak. The main reason we think Goldfinches breed so late is that they feed their young entirely on seeds, rather than invertebrates like almost all small birds, so they have to delay breeding until the seed heads begin to appear. The favorite food of Goldfinches includes Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), as well as a range of native and unfortunately, non-native, thistles.

Goldfinches build beautiful, densely-woven nests of fibrous materials such as thistle down and grasses in which they lay 2-5 bluish-white eggs (nest photographed at Bucktoe Creek on July 23).  The nestlings develop in around 2 weeks and fledge resembling duller versions of their parents with brownish wing bars and dark beaks (nestlings photographed in a different nest on August 5, just before they fledged).

The Goldfinches’ second surprise is that they are the only finch that molts their body feathers twice a year. Both sexes are a drab yellowish-green in the fall and winter, perhaps to avoid being seen by predators like hawks, but become brighter yellow in the summertime. The males are especially striking with their lemon yellow body, jet-black wings and cap, and white tail flashes.

The sight of a flock of Goldfinches feeding in a field of native thistle is enough to gladden the heart of any birdwatcher, and luckily Goldfinches are quite easy to attract to your yard, even in fairly urban areas. You can buy sock feeders of nyjer seeds or tube feeders made specifically for Goldfinches with thin seed ports. Since Goldfinches have such small pointed beaks they are the only common bird in our area that can reach inside and pick out the nyjer seeds. They will also happily eat black oil sunflower seed from a generic tube or platform feeder which has the added benefit of attracting other birds too. Better still, try planting some patches of Coneflower or native thistle in your yard and watch them feed how nature intended!

Ian Stewart, Ornithologist

One of the best ways to connect with nature is to monitor bird nest boxes. Regularly checking the contents of an active nest box lets you watch the whole breeding cycle unfold before your very eyes! It starts with nest building, progresses through egg laying and nestling rearing and then (hopefully) ends with the young birds successfully leaving the nest.

IMG_2236

Using an mirror to count Bluebird eggs

The Delaware Nature Society has a team of eager volunteers who monitor over two hundred boxes spread throughout several properties and every year brings more data and surprises. Our most common occupants are Tree Swallows, Eastern Bluebirds and House Wrens but most years we attract a few Carolina Chickadees, Carolina Wrens and Tufted Titmice. One year we had a White-breasted Nuthatch use one of our boxes – who knows what species might show up next?!

Chickadee on nest

Opening this nest box revealed a Carolina Chickadee sitting tightly on a nest. In these cases we leave the bird alone and retreat.

Checking boxes lets you see for yourself the many differences between each species in the way their nests are built, the shape and color of their eggs, and the appearance of their nestlings, as well as the nesting quirks of different birds. Did you know for instance that House Wrens often add spider cocoons to their nest, probably because the spider hatchlings eat arthropod pests mixed in among the nest lining?

Wren nest with spiders

House Wren nest lining dotted with spider cocoons

Our boxes remain in place year-round and provide winter refuges for both welcome and (slightly) unwelcome guests. Eastern Bluebirds roost in our boxes overnight during the winter, presumably to help them stay warm, and sometimes bundle together in the same box. Last winter one of our boxes at Coverdale Farm Preserve had an enlarged entrance hole and was filled with acorns from the huge old Red Oaks that line the driveway. This was probably a squirrel using the box to cache a supply of acorns to chomp on if a sudden snowfall made food hard to find.

chewed box

acorns

Mice also like to spend the winter in our boxes so we have to bump them out to allow the birds to nest. Can you spot the two mice jumping out of the box?

mice2

We have been cleaning out our boxes to get them ready for spring and the birds are checking them out already so nesting isn’t far away! We can always use an extra person or two to help monitor nest boxes at Coverdale Farm or the Red Clay Reservation near Greenville, or Abbott’s Mill near Milford, so if you want to get involved just give us a call on (302) 239-2334. Boxes only need to be checked once a week and monitoring them makes a great excuse for talking a walk on a summer evening or weekend at these beautiful sites. All of our data are submitted to Cornell University’s ‘Nest Watch’ scheme so we are contributing to science as well as simply enjoying nature.

If you’d rather put up your own nest boxes why not join our upcoming program (April 27th at Ashland followed by a field trip to Coverdale on April 29th) to get advice on how to design and position boxes in order to attract nesting birds to your property? Having birds nest in a box you built yourself is a tremendously satisfying experience that may be repeated for many summers to come!

Tree swallows on box

A pair of excited Tree Swallows start building their nest in a brand-new box