Archives

All posts by Joe Sebastiani

Story and Photos by Joe Sebastiani, Ashland Nature Center Manager

What happens on a Delaware Nature Society Eco-trip? This spring’s adventure to Montana and Yellowstone featured lots of Black Bear, Grizzlies, Bison babies, over 150 species of birds, and world-class scenery. Throw in a few overnights in haunted hotels, cute mountain towns, and great food, and you have the recipe for an eco-trip to remember for a lifetime.
Forrest Rowland from Rockjumper Birding Tours led the trip. Forrest leads groups around the world, but lives in Montana. Joe Sebastiani, Ashland Nature Center Manager, accompanied the Delaware Nature Society group to experience one of America’s most wild and beautiful areas.  Many fans of the Ashland Hawk Watch know Forrest as the first Hawk Watcher during our 2007 inaugural season.  Now he is in charge of New World Operations for Rockjumper, and a highly sought-after guide.

Richardson’s Ground Squirrel looks like a pint-sized Prairie Dog. This one is barking at our group!

Our trip started in the short-grass prairie ecosystem around Billings, and focused on finding the birds of the region.  Many prairie species are declining, and some of the rare ones take inside knowledge of where to find them.  Luckily, Forrest lives in the area, and is tuned-in to where pockets of decent prairie habitat remains that supports birds.

Some of the highlights include watching the breeding displays Sprague’s Pipit, McCown’s and Chestnut-collared Longspurs as well as Long-billed Curlews chasing Golden Eagles.  Curlew disdain for eagles is known right away, as they scold and chase the larger eagles, America’s most powerful predatory bird, across the prairie.  Rare prairie nesting species we encountered included Ferruginous Hawk and Baird’s Sparrow.  A few species I thought I would never see in my life.

Chestnut-collared Longspurs fly up in the air and parachute back to the ground on wings held high, impressing feathered and human onlookers.

We were lucky to encounter a Plains Hog-nosed Snake which allowed us some close-up looks.

After the prairies, our group ventured into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in southwest Montana.  Our base was Livingston, and we enjoyed the town and hotel as much as the adventures.  The Murray Hotel, downtown, allowed us to experience an old, western, authentic establishment, that is famously haunted, especially on the third floor, where my room was!  After returning from an old burned-over woods containing Lewis’s Woodpeckers, and visiting a wonderful bird feeding station with Evening Grosbeaks, Cassin’s Finches, Red Crossbills, and many others, the Murray awaited.  The rooms were well-appointed in Western and Native American decor.  Old photos of folks dressed in long-ago outfits decorated the walls.  I did not have a supernatural experience that night, but others in the group might have been in touch with the spirit world.

We visited two fantastic feeding stations, allowing opportunities to view hard to find species such as the Evening Grosbeak, a large finch.

Forrest Rowland, our Guide, enters the Murray Hotel in Livingston, with its famously haunted 3rd floor, where my room was.

Our group eagerly awaited Yellowstone National Park.  Large mammals abound, not to mention otherworldly hot springs and geothermal features.  Our first stop was Mammoth Hot Springs, which bubbles up boiling water, creating a beautiful cascade of dissolved limestone that reforms when in contact with the air at the surface.  Said to look like an inside-out cave, Mammoth Hot Springs is a beautiful sight, combined with sulphury smells, hot steam, and swirling colors.

Mammoth Hot Springs

We took one of the longest hikes of the trip here, partially to find Dusky Grouse and Williamson’s Sapsucker.  We found the Grouse by listening for its soft, low, cooing calls, produced by pinkish air sacs on the side of the male’s neck.  Forrest heard it, located it, and had us making concentric circles around the bird, without making eye contact with it, until we were right on top of it, taking a seat feet from the bird.  It went about its business, unconcerned by our proximity, so it seemed.

This male Dusky Grouse allowed us to sit practically next to it, as it made low, soft cooing sounds from the air sacs on its throat.

Along the walk, a few of us were looking at a butterfly, trying to identify it, when a brown figure was seen walking up a side trail towards us.  EEEEK!  It was a bear!  We noticed it when it was about 25 feet away, which is rather close.  We quickly stumbled away from it, walking at first, then moved with a little more urgency towards Forrest, who had the can of bear spray.  Hearts were racing, and there might have been a little pushing, but it turned out to be a young male cinnamon-colored Black Bear, only interested in getting a drink at the nearby creek, and eating some flowers.

This mild-mannered cinnamon Black Bear certainly startled a few of us on the trail, as we did not notice it until it was very close to us.

After our Bear encounter, we moved on to some of the large, open valleys in the park to seek other large forms of wildlife.  One way to do this is to stop where other people are on the side of the road looking at something.  One of our first “wildlife jams” on the road was caused by a mother Grizzly Bear and her two cubs tearing apart an elk that she had just killed.  As we watched them feed (300 yards away through the scope), you could see them tearing meat off the carcass…a brutal reminder there are animals here that are one step higher up the food chain than you.

For many of us, it was the herds of Bison that made the show at Yellowstone.  These hump-backed, woolly cow-like creatures plod around grasslands, roll in the dirt, walk down roadways, butt heads, and move along with young calves, right in front of you.  The calves are extremely cute, and allowed us fabulous looks.

In early June during our trip, it was “Cute Calf Season” for the Bison.

During our last few days in the park, continued our search for wildlife.  Sightings included Coyote, White-tailed Deer, Mule Deer, Bighorn Sheep, Mountain Goats, Moose, Pronghorn, and many species of birds including Harlequin Ducks and Barrow’s Goldeneye which inhabit the fast-moving rivers in the park.  One thing we missed by 10 minutes, however, was Gray Wolf.  We gave it a good effort, but didn’t end up seeing them.

Coyote are apparently more difficult to see in Yellowstone that Gray Wolves. We missed the wolves, but had this Coyote walk right past us.

Finally, although it was early June, we couldn’t leave the Rocky Mountains without at least one shot of snow.  Beartooth Pass, at nearly 11,000 feet in elevation, was closed to vehicular traffic up until the day we needed to cross it.  Finally, on June 3rd, hours after it opened, we ascended to the top.  Snow was falling, as was the thermometer in the car as we climbed.  At the top, the temperature was 31 degrees, the wind howled, and we dressed in every layer we brought.  We drove through canyons of snow 20 feet deep, as the road snaked its way over the barren top of the pass.  Considered one of the most scenic roads in the Lower 48,  it was a perfect way to cap off the adventure to the Montana and Yellowstone National Park.

The weather at Beartooth Pass finally allowed for some blue sky and clouds, after 31 degrees, snow, and high winds earlier in the day.

The next Delaware Nature Society Eco-trip is to Ecuador to see hundreds of species of birds in the Andes Mountains, where you will have the opportunity to surpass the elevation on the Yellowstone trip.  From 13,000 feet down to about 5,000 feet, sample the best of birding, eco-lodges, food, and natural beauty in one of the world’s most bio-diverse countries.  Sign up today!!!

By Joe Sebastiani, Ashland Nature Center Manager

Now that the Philadelphia Eagles have won the Super Bowl, local fans now have to find something else to do for the remainder of winter.  How about participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count!  Ashland and Abbott’s Mill Nature Centers will join birders from all over the world for this year’s Great Backyard Bird Count!  We invite you to join us on our field trip to find birds in Kent County, Delaware on Saturday, February 17, 8am to 4pm.  Meet at either Abbott’s Mill Nature Center in Milford or Ashland Nature Center in Hockessin.  We will meet up and all go birding for the day together.  Call (302) 239-2334 if you would like to register.  $20 for DNS members and $30 for non-members.

Can’t get enough Eagles?? Join Matt Babbitt and Joe Sebastiani on Saturday, February 17, 8am-4pm for a Great Backyard Bird Count field trip where we are certain to see many Bald Eagles, waterfowl, wintering songbirds, and possibly some owls or other surprises. Call 302-239-2334 to register. $20/$30 DNS member/Non-member. Bald Eagle photo taken at the Bucktoe Creek Preserve, Avondale, PA by Joe Sebastiani

The GBBC is a worldwide citizen science effort to take a snapshot of bird distribution between February 16 and 19.  You can participate by looking for birds in your yard, or wherever you want to go including parks, wildlife refuges, the beach, etc.  Bird for at least 15 minutes, and enter your sightings.  Follow the link for the count above for directions on how to submit your findings.  Participate on your own anywhere you want to look for birds, or join our Delaware Nature Society trip to Kent County!

It was rather cold a few years back on the Great Backyard Bird Count, but it is always fun! Taken at Fort Dupont State Park by Joe Sebastiani.

Now, let me share a few statistics from the GBBC in 2017.  Worldwide, 6,285 species were found, which means well over half the 10,000 bird species on earth were seen within a 4-day period last February!  That is completely amazing to me.  Columbia took first place, where 1,042 species of birds were tallied.  This makes sense, since Columbia has the highest biodiversity of birds for any country.  The United States came in 7th place with 669 species.  In Delaware, observers found 147 species, and we placed 26th out of the 50 states.  Not too bad considering Delaware is a small state. 952 bird checklists were submitted here during the 4-day period, which is a lot of birding for our 3-county state over 4 days.  Click here to see the overall species list for last year’s GBBC in Delaware.  We’ll see how many species Delaware birders come up with this year, but my guess is that 147 species will be tough to beat.  Will we submit over 1,000 checklists?  It might be a nice target to surpass.

Watch your bird feeders and submit your sightings to the Great Backyard Bird Count, taking place February 16-19 this year. Red-bellied Woodpecker, Avondale, PA taken by Joe Sebastiani.

February is my least favorite month around here.  Football is over.  It is cold.  Nature is in a steady-state of ice, with wildlife waiting until the weather breaks. The first pitch of the baseball season is still a ways off.  For some outdoor fun, get out for the Great Backyard Bird Count and breathe some fresh air while you add to our knowledge of bird distribution.  Better yet, join me and Matt on the 17th.  Have fun!

By Joe Sebastiani, Ashland Nature Center Manager

In these not-so-wintry days with temperatures in the high 60’s, you are the only creature fooled into thinking it is spring.  Plenty of plants, and an abundance of animals are responding as though it is April.  During a walk at Ashland today, with 68 degree heat, I noticed some things that weren’t showing themselves this time last year.  The most exciting show at Ashland right now is the emergence of Wood Frogs.  Get out to Ashland within the week if you want to catch the action.  As I write this, the sound of the male’s “quacking” is percolating through my open window along with a warm breeze.  Listen to the short audio clip of the Wood Frogs calling from a small pond next to the Ashland Nature Center.

Male Wood Frogs like this one are currently "quacking" away, in the hopes of attracting a female to join him in the water.

Male Wood Frogs like this one are currently “quacking” away, in the hopes of attracting a female to join him in the water.

Wood Frogs lay clumps of eggs that will soak up water after they are laid.  The ones below my hand are newer than the ones on my hand.  Can you see the difference?

Once a male and female Wood Frog find each other, she will lay eggs such as these, and the male will fertilize them.

Once a male and female Wood Frog find each other, she will lay eggs such as these, and the male will fertilize them.

Although the American Bullfrog won't lay eggs until later in spring, I was surprised to see one surveying the scene at Ashland on this warm 1st day of March.

Although the American Bullfrog won’t lay eggs until later in spring, I was surprised to see one surveying the scene at Ashland on this warm 1st day of March.

A walk along the floodplain at Ashland Nature Center revealed several plants beginning their growth cycle for the year.  Several are non-native, invasive plants, but others are native.  The warm weather is giving these plants an early start this year, but it isn’t completely unusual.

Snowdrops are an ornamental, non-native plant that is found in the wild sometimes. They are always the first sign of spring here at Ashland, and they are in full bloom currently.

Snowdrops are an ornamental, non-native plant that is found in the wild sometimes. They are always the first sign of spring here at Ashland, and they are in full bloom currently.

Lesser Celandine is blooming along the Red Clay Creek at Ashland right now. Unfortunately, it is a non-native, invasive species that is devastating wildflower diversity along waterways in our area by smothering the native wildflowers.

Lesser Celandine is blooming along the Red Clay Creek at Ashland right now. Unfortunately, it is a non-native, invasive species that is devastating plant diversity along waterways in our area by smothering the native wildflowers.

This Skunk Cabbage is a native wetland plant that is already sending up its leaves in the wet forest.

This Skunk Cabbage is a native wetland plant that is already sending up its leaves in the wet forest.

The small, red female flower of the American Hazelnut is in bloom, but you have to look closely to find it!

The small, red female flower of the American Hazelnut is in bloom, but you have to look closely to find it!

The long, yellow male flowers of the American Hazelnut are much easier to see. This is always one of the signs that native plants are starting the new growth year, and it is fun to spot these shrubs in the woods right now, when they tend to blend in later on in the year.

The long, yellow male flowers of the American Hazelnut are much easier to see.  It is fun to spot these shrubs in the woods right now when they are more obvious.  They tend to blend in later in the year, making them tough to see.  Can you find the small, red female flowers in this photo?

One of the early signs of spring I have NOT noticed yet is the Groundhog.  My guess is that during this early warm spell, they have decided not to show their faces, after  predicting we would have six more weeks of winter.  WRONG!!

Finally, the insects are also out and about.  I have seen Anglewing butterflies, true flies, a dragonfly, and many smaller, unidentifiable forms buzzing around lately.  The prize in this category, however, goes to the inch-long larvae of one of our firefly species that we found crawling on Ash trees.  We found dozens of them, and watched as they scampered around the trunks, looking for smaller insect to eat.

This large Firefly larva was crawling around the trunks of trees on the floodplain. They must have recently emerged, since there were dozens of them. These insects will dine on smaller insects they can catch as they slink up the trunk.

This large Firefly larva was crawling around the trunks of trees on the floodplain. They must have recently emerged, since there were dozens of them. These insects will dine on smaller insects they can catch as they slink up the trunk.

 

By Derek Stoner, Seasonal Program Team Leader

A Red-eyed Tree Frog dazzles with colors when illuminated by a flashlight, as it hunts at night for insect prey in the Costa Rican rainforest. Photo by trip participant Joe Flowers.

A Red-eyed Tree Frog dazzles with colors when illuminated by a flashlight, as it hunts at night for insect prey in the Costa Rican rainforest. Photo by trip participant Joe Flowers.

Continuing our “flashback tour” from our Costa Rica 2015 adventure:

As our group settled in at the comfortable Evergreen Lodge on the banks of the picturesque Tortuguero River, we could hardly imagine the bounty of wildlife could be any greater than what we found right around our accommodations.    Dazzling hummingbirds fed from fire-red Heleconia flowers all around us while White-faced Capuchin monkeys scrambled about in the treetops in search of ripe fruit.   Rainbow-hued land crabs scuttled underfoot to hide in their burrows as they avoided the feet of distracted nature enthusiasts.

A White-faced Capuchin monkey prepares to leap from the tree towards the onlookers. Photo by Derek Stoner.

A White-faced Capuchin monkey prepares to leap from the tree towards the onlookers. Photo by Derek Stoner.

Our evening adventure took us into the dark and narrow canals cut into the nearby rainforest, allowing special access to a world of trees, vines, flowers, and teeming wildlife.  The captain of the boat deftly brought our vessel with close range of the animals while our guide provided a running commentary on the interesting life history of these unique species.

A male Northern Jacana displays for the female while dancing across a bed of Water Hyacinths. Photo by Derek Stoner.

A male Northern Jacana displays for the female while dancing across a bed of Water Hyacinths. Photo by Derek Stoner.

We encountered a very confiding pair of Northern Jacanas, rail-like birds with impossibly long toes that help them walk delicately atop the floating aquatic vegetation.  At point-blank range we witnessed the male showing off his bright-yellow wing spurs while pumping his chestnut-colored wings and chest.  The display continued as we motored on to view the next wildlife spectacle around the bend.

The reclusive Black River Turtle, found only in a small region of Costa Rica, basks on a river-side log. Photo by Derek Stoner.

The reclusive Black River Turtle, found only in a small region of Costa Rica, basks on a river-side log. Photo by Derek Stoner.

Our exploration led us to close encounters with the endemic Black River Turtle, a bright red-and-black Red-capped Manakin, Howler Monkeys hooting overhead, and Great Currasows (a turkey-like bird) scrambling through palm fronds.   As the boat gently nudged a log, a Caiman (small crocodilian) splashed into the water from its camouflaged hiding place.  Our group spied a Boat-billed Heron resting amidst an umbrella of vegetation, staring back at use with its large eyes used for nocturnal hunting.  The rattling calls of Green Kingfishers and Amazon Kingfishers seemed to greet us around almost every turn.

Exploring the river by boat is a fantastic way to encounter wildlife and access unique habitats. Photo by Derek Stoner.

Exploring the river by boat is a fantastic way to encounter wildlife and access unique habitats. Photo by Derek Stoner.


As our blog journey back to last Fall’s Costa Rica trip continues in future posts, we invite you to look ahead on your calendar and consider joining Delaware Nature Society this November for a bigger and better Costa Rica exploration: a twelve-day Tropical Wildlife Adventure.  From the Caribbean to the Pacific, from the lowlands to the cloud forest, we will visit unique habitats and stay at spectacular lodges during this grand tour of the best  natural areas in this tropical paradise.  Guided by Costa Rican native Jose Saenz.

Costa Rica: A Tropical Wildlife Adventure, will run from November 10 to November 21.   Delaware Nature Society staff Judy Montgomery and Derek Stoner will be the hosts and provide you with a first-class eco-tourism experience as we travel together to the tropics.  Member pricing is $3,920 (airfare not included) and includes all lodging, meals, ground transportation, and special experiences like snorkeling.  Call 302-239-2334, extension 127 or email judym@delnature.org for trip details.

Registration deadline is July 31.