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By Jason Beale, Abbott’s Mill Nature Center Manager

Towering American Chestnuts (Castanea dentata) defined much of the eastern forest from the colonial period until the early 1900’s.  Valued by humans and wildlife alike for its bountiful nuts, the tree was also used for lumber and leather tanning.

Stump-sprouting American Chestnuts, like this one at Abbott’s Mill, are typical of most remaining trees, which once constituted more than 25% of the eastern forest. This specimen may be over a hundred years old as it continually battles blight.  Photo by Jason Beale.

The eastern forest was forever changed when an Asian fungus, tolerated by Chinese and Japanese Chestnuts, began its uncontrollable spread in 1904.  By the 1930’s, the American Chestnut was rendered ecologically extinct, with trees  killed outright or condemned to decades of attempted regrowth.  It’s shrubby native cousin, the Chinquapin, also suffered from the blight.  The impact on wildlife, forests, and many rural communities was devastating.

 

Chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica) attacking a sprout. This sac fungus will kill off the trunk, while the tree will continue to send up new shoots.  Photo by Ed Crawford.

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the stump-sprouting chestnuts have inspired people to help restore the chestnut to its former ecological role.  The American Chestnut Foundation (http://www.acf.org/), founded in 1983, has worked diligently to protect remaining chestnuts that show a degree of blight-resistance and has embarked on an extensive project to hybridize American trees with Chinese specimens.  Generations of backcrossing with American specimens have yielded a tree that is approximately 94% American and expected to show a high degree of blight-resistance.  These “BC3F3” trees may be the pioneers that bring thriving chestnuts back to our forests.

 

Dr. Gary Carver, Pres. of the Maryland Chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation, provides ID tips for distinguishing American and Chinese traits in hybrid and backcrossed trees.  Photo by Jason Beale.

Abbott’s Mill Nature Center in Milford, Delaware features remnant American Chestnuts, Chinquapins, and the remnants of a former Chinese Chestnut plantation.  Inspired by the story of the chestnut and coupled with  ongoing habitat restoration projects, Abbott’s Mill staff toured Maryland’s American Chestnut Society Chapter’s restoration projects.  We returned and planted four saplings from a surviving American Chestnut (known as a mother tree) as the first step in working with TACF to restore chestnuts in Delaware along with an interpretive trail highlighting the natural and cultural history of the tree.

 

This ~50 ft. “survivor” tree in Maryland provides hope that the American Chestnut could return to the eastern forest.  Photo by Jason Beale.

Please contact Abbott’s Mill Nature Center at 302-422-0847 or jason@delawarenaturesociety.org if you are interested in helping us bring the chestnut back and turn over a new leaf in this tree’s incredible story.

By Jason Beale, Manager, Abbott’s Mill Nature Center

On June 4th DEEC Manager, John Harrod, posted a blog on American Eel elvers.  Elvers, defined as being less than 6″ long, mature into “yellow eels” as they grow and work their way up freshwater streams like Johnson’s Branch at Abbott’s Mill Nature Center.  Eels are catadromous fish, meaning that they breed in saltwater (Sargasso Sea) and migrate into freshwater to spend the majority of their adult lives.  For comparison, Shad and Salmon are anadromous fish, breeding in freshwater, but living in salt water.

Despite the drought-impacted water levels (1-3″ in many sections), American Eels are conspicuous nocturnal residents on Johnson’s Branch during warm summer nights.

Johnson’s Branch is one of the two main streams feeding the Mispillion River in Milford.  In actuality, the river becomes a series of mill ponds as one heads upstream from Milford.  Therefore, an eel at Abbott’s Mill has had to migrate at least 3.5 miles from Milford and over or around 3 dams.  Elvers can and do leave the streambed on occasion to cross obstacles.

A “Yellow” Eel in Johnson’s Branch. This individual kept it self stationary in the current for at least five minutes until I spooked it, quickly disappearing into the stream edge roots and debris.

On July 2, under the light of the full moon, I took a slow walk along the Johnson’s Branch boardwalk at Abbott’s Mill and encountered at least 4 different American Eels, ranging in size from ~12-24″.  The American Eel story becomes more fascinating as the adults morph into “Silver Eels” and prepare for their journey to the Sargasso Sea, but that’s a tale for another blog…

 

By Jason Beale, Abbott’s Mill Nature Center Manager

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge, Maryland is a popular location for naturalists in the winter.
Blackwater NWR near Cambridge, Maryland is a top location for winter wildlife watching on Delmarva. Photo by Ellen Sebastiani.

As the days shorten and leaf fall continues, birdwatchers begin to focus in on the legions of returning waterfowl and wintering raptors that fill the marshes and fields of the Delmarva Peninsula.  Few destinations are as unique and productive than Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, near Cambridge, Maryland.  Along with legions of Ducks, Geese, and Swans, the refuge hosts a tremendous number of wintering Bald Eagles – more than any other site on the East Coast, north of Florida.  But wait, there’s more!  Each year a few Golden Eagles find the vast, open habitats suitable for making a living during the winter.  In and around the forest, another distinct species keeps busy – the endangered Delmarva Fox Squirrel.  This large, grizzled-gray squirrel only makes it home on the peninsula in scattered patches of open forest.

Despite being well-known winter residents, experiencing the sights and sounds of thousands of Snow Geese in close proximity is exhilarating. Photo by Joe Sebastiani.

Once again, Delaware Nature Society is offering a trip to Blackwater on Wednesday, December 7th.  Groups will depart from both Abbott’s Mill Nature Center in Milford and the DuPont Environmental Education Center in Wilmington.  Both groups will depart from their respective sites at 7:30am and return around 4:30pm.

Tundra Swans are one of Delmarva’s largest bird species. Photo by Joe Sebastiani.

We’ll stop briefly at the visitor’s center before beginning our tour.  We’ll then travel the wildlife drive auto tour, with periodic stops and short hikes in wooded areas.  After a short lunch, we’ll tour the refuge perimeter and open marshes that fringe the Chesapeake Bay area.  Time permitting, we’ll venture to the Cambridge waterfront to look for Canvasback, Redhead, and other bay ducks that winter in the area.

Golden Eagles, like this juvenile, regularly winter at Blackwater. Photo by Derek Stoner

Blackwater Wildlife Tour

Wednesday, December 7th

Abbott’s Mill Nature Center: 7:30am-4:30pm

Member/Non-Member: $22/$30

DuPont Environmental Education Center: 7:30am-4:30pm

Member/Non-Member: $22/$30

To register, contact Fiona Smith at (302) 239-2334 x. 134. Dress for the weather and bring a bag lunch.

By Jason Beale, Manager, Abbott’s Mill Nature Center

Historically, mills connected communities together as a gathering place.  That tradition has continued to the present day through Delaware Nature Society’s partnership at the mill with Delaware’s Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs.  This fall, the connection was taken to a new level as Abbott’s Mill collaborated with Dogfish Head Craft-brewed Ales, Fifer Orchards, and University of Delaware to produce DNA (Delaware Native Ale).  Dogfish Head owner and founder Sam Calagione wanted to highlight the benefits of local partnerships.

Abbott’s Mill became involved in the DNA project in late summer, which required some experimentation with the mill equipment to find the perfect grind.

The perfect grind: bran removed, white germ exposed and ready for the yeast to feed on

 

Millers Elliott Workman, Stephen Childers, and Paul Layton worked with Dogfish Head Brewing Supervisor, Jesse Prall, producing the first consumable product in almost 50 years on the 19th century roller mills.

Life is a grind - not necessarily a bad thing!

The ground barley was produced exclusively by renewable hydro power provided by the Abbott’s Mill Pond, which dates back to 1795.

From harnessing sustainable hydro power for brewing to capturing rain water for garden use and run-off control, Abbott's Mill and Dogfish Head have helped bridge communities this fall.

Aside from this “green source of blue energy”, Delaware Nature Society’s and Dogfish Head’s sustainability initiatives dovetailed on a recent rain barrel program.  Dogfish’s Events Czar and Sustainability Guru, Mark Carter, supplied Abbott’s Mill with empty ingredient barrels used in the creation of specialty brews, Midas touch and Fort.  On Thursday, October 27th, a dozen adults convened at the mill to turn these brewery cast-offs into rain barrels.

Robert Uebele of Milford models product placement and his work-in-progress rain barrel.

Many thanks to Dogfish Head Craft-brewed Ales and the DNA collaborators for including Abbott’s Mill in this unique “Delaware-centric” endeavor.

Please check out the video highlighting the production of  Delaware Native Ale .  Enjoy!