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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 Ian Stewart, Ornithologist

Bird banding is in full swing at both Ashland Nature Center and Bucktoe Creek Preserve and our mist-nets are becoming dominated by Gray Catbirds! Gray Catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) are grouped with Northern Mockingbirds and Brown Thrashers as ‘mimic-thrushes’ as all three are slender thrush-like birds with long tails and loud, elaborate songs. Indeed, catbirds get their name because of the peculiar cat-like ‘miaow’ call they often give while hidden low in a bush! Catbirds are by far the most common of the three mimic-thrushes however, and can be so abundant that many birdwatchers don’t give them a second glance. This is a pity, because catbirds have several interesting features which are particularly obvious when you are holding them during the banding process.

The first of these is the conspicuous rictal bristles around the base of their bill. Several other groups of birds have rictal bristles (especially flycatchers) and although their exact purpose is unknown they are thought to either have a sensory function or to prevent captured insects from scratching a bird’s eyes while they are being held in their bill.

Four rictal bristles can be seen at the base of this Gray Catbird's bill.

Four rictal bristles can be seen at the base of this Gray Catbird’s bill.

The second distinctive Catbird character is their crimson ‘crissum’. This is the patch of feathers underneath their tail which isn’t always easy to see in the field as Catbirds tend to stay fairly low to the ground. The third interesting plumage character of Catbirds, which can also be seen in the picture below, are the fairly obvious growth bars in their outer tail feathers. Growth bars appear as alternating light and dark bands and each pair of bands represents one 24 hour period of feather growth.

Underside of a Gray Catbird showing the crimson crissum and growth bars in the outer tail feathers.

Underside of a Gray Catbird showing the crimson crissum and growth bars in the outer tail feathers.

Not surprisingly, Catbirds were by far the most frequently caught species during the pilot banding project we conducted last summer at Ashland and Bucktoe. In just 3 months we caught 152 catbirds, of which 87 were juveniles likely hatched locally. So far this year we have recaptured 3 of the catbirds we banded last year and hope to recapture even more as the season progresses. It’s truly amazing to think that these 3 birds spent their winter over a thousand miles away in the south-eastern US or the Caribbean and yet came back to the same few hundred acre spots in DE and PA the following year!

The number on this metal leg band showed that this Gray Catbird was banded the previous year.

The number on this metal leg band showed that this Gray Catbird was banded the previous year.

So be sure to take a longer look at a Gray Catbird next time you see one. They are more interesting than you might think!

Public bird banding sessions are held at Ashland Nature Center on Monday and Bucktoe Creek on Wednesday, both from 8am – 11am, though banding does not take place if it is raining or windy, out of concerns for the birds’ safety.

Note that there will be no banding this Monday (May 30th) due to the Memorial Day Holiday.

By Guest Blogger: Martha Corrozi Narvaez

Associate Policy Scientist, Water Resources Agency, Institute for Public Administration, University of Delaware

On an unseasonably warm Sunday in February I walked hand-in-hand with my 4-year old son along Wilmington’s riverwalk that parallels the magnificent Christina River. As we walked we passed by couples, families, runners, and people of all types with the musings of ice skaters in the background. My son and I talked about the ducks swimming by, the swift current carrying sticks and other debris and the “mean people” that littered their bottles and trash in the river. I couldn’t help but think that just a few years ago I would not have been able to share this experience with him. I am fortunate to share such an experience with him and I also feel fortunate that I understand the complexity and state of this river.

Christina River on a warm winter day.

Christina River on a warm winter day.

It is easy to see that the Christina River has undergone an urban renaissance resulting in the Chase Center, Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park, Christina Riverwalk, a variety of restaurants, high-rise residential buildings, the Blue Rocks stadium, and the DuPont Environmental Education Center’s wildlife refuge. This growth is spurred by people’s desire to be near the water and the aesthetic qualities it provides, yet beyond this beauty there is a complex, natural system at work.

The headwaters of the Christina River lie within the state of Maryland and enter Delaware west of Newark. The White Clay, Red Clay, and Brandywine creeks are tributaries of the Christina River. The Christina River is freshwater yet tidal from just south of the town of Christiana to its confluence with the Delaware River at Wilmington. Extensive tidal freshwater wetlands, including Churchmans Marsh, exist along the lower Christina. The majority of the Christina River watershed is located in New Castle County (DE). The Christina River is a mostly urbanized watershed with over 50% of the land cover developed. The watershed is the site of the Port of Wilmington, an important shipping link, and one of the largest importers of orange juice, Chilean grapes, bananas, and automobiles nationally.

Wilmington's Christina Riverfront

Wilmington’s Christina Riverfront

The Christina River has its share of historic contamination. There are numerous contaminated sites bordering the river. Samples have indicated that there are toxics present at elevated levels in the water bodies of the Christina River watershed and fish consumption advisories have been posted for the river. According to the USEPA’s water quality standards the Delaware portion of the Christina River requires varying levels of pollution reduction for nitrogen, phosphorus and bacteria.

Although the Christina River has fallen victim to years of industry, improper land use and anthropogenic influences the story of the river is a positive one. The state is working diligently to clean up and redevelop the toxic sites along the river. The Christina River is also demonstrating improving trends for many water quality parameters. According to a recent article on water quality trends in Delaware’s streams by Gerald Kauffman and Andrew Belden, water quality trend analysis for long term (1970/1980-2005) and short-term (1990-2005) trends show improvement in the Christina River for numerous water quality parameters including: dissolved oxygen (DO), total suspended sediment (TSS), total phosphorus (TP), and total Kjedahl nitrogen (TKN). Positive trends for these parameters indicate improving conditions in the river. Additional parameters, including bacteria, which levels have historically been increasing, show a leveling off for long-term and short-terms trends over this same time period, another good news story.

We know that the Christina River is not a pristine, natural river system yet research shows that there are positive signs for the health of the water body. The efforts by so many locally, state-wide and regionally to improve the water quality has had a positive impact. And as the riverfront becomes more popular and a destination in the region, it is my hope that individuals will learn more about the river and help protect this valuable resource through individual stewardship. And over the years as I continue to walk along the riverfront I will feel fortunate to be able to share this river, which inspires and motivates me, with so many people, especially my son.

Join us at DEEC on April 16 at 3:30pm for National Water Dance to celebrate the Christina River through dance performances and exploration of the marsh for the wildlife calling it home.

To find out more about efforts to improve and protect our waters or how you can have impact, check out the Clean Water: Delaware’s Clear Choice campaign website, Facebook, or Twitter!

By Megan McBride, Farmyard Coordinator

Winter at Coverdale Farm Preserve is always a beautiful time of year. With the vegetables fields in the CSA safely planted with cover crops our main focus becomes the health and happiness of all our unique animals.

Winter on the farm can provide many challenges regarding our animal husbandry. Even when the snow falls and the roads are frozen, all of our cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, and pigs still need lots of care. Every day all of the animals receive fresh hay or grain, and special attention is paid to their water. The animal’s access to fresh and clean water is critical to their health. Every day, sometimes multiple times a day, the animal’s drinking water is refresh and de-iced. Water is the most important necessity for all of the animals here at Coverdale Farm Preserve, including the farmers. All water, including ground, rain, and snowmelt here at Coverdale eventually drains into the Burrow’s Run creek.  The Burrow’s Run is a vital tributary of the larger Red Clay Creek. Special attention is paid to limiting the amount of wasteful runoff here at the farm. Water conservation practices at Coverdale include planting native trees, shrubs, and grasses along riparian buffers and surrounding animal areas to minimize wasteful runoff.

Water conservation is one of our primary ecological objectives at Coverdale Farm Preserve. Photo by Christi Leeson.

Water conservation is one of our primary ecological objectives at Coverdale Farm Preserve. Photo by Christi Leeson. 

One might think that all of the animals that are living outside in the winter here at Coverdale might be cold.  Each animal has it’s own natural defense against the cold.   Pigs grow extra fat and burrow in the straw to stay warm.  The sheep have a wooly coat that insulates them.  The goats grow an undercoat of downy hair, known as cashmere.  The cattle grow extra thick hair and their fat helps shield them from winter’s icy wrath.  Extra hair might not seem like much extra warmth, and on it’s own it is not.  The hair traps thousands of tiny pockets of air, which aids in insulation.  Chicken feathers trap pockets of air much like an animals fur.  Most animals can stay out in the cold and not be bothered.  However on a windy or rainy day they seek shelter so the wind and rain do not flatten their air pocket insulation.

Goats at Coverdale Farm Preserve.

Goats at Coverdale Farm Preserve. Photo by Christi Leeson.

The sheep, goats and chickens have a hard time walking in high snow and prefer to stay in their shelters when the snow is deep. When this happens, as it so often does, the farmers strap on their snowshoes and break a path to their feed and water. The cattle however can easily move in the snow and will be seen more frequently outside on a snowy day.

Sheep on the "snow trail" at Coverdale Farm Preserve.

Sheep on the “snow trail” at Coverdale Farm Preserve.  Photo by Christi Leeson.

Although it is cold and snowy now, we are preparing for a very busy spring. Our first lambs and piglets are due in late March and shortly thereafter the vegetable fields will be bursting with life. Remember to eat more vegetables, drink lots of clean Delaware water, and sign up for one of our amazing programs today!