Abbott’s Mill

By Matt Babbitt: Abbott’s Mill Nature Center Manager

Last week, staff at Abbott’s Mill Nature Center had the pleasure of spending two days working on land stewardship projects with 6 young women and 3 adult Mentors from The Nature Conservancy’s Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) Internship Program. This paid internship program brings students and adult Mentors from all over the country together for 4 weeks every summer to live and work in natural areas. During their time together, the groups assist the Nature Conservancy and their partners with projects such as trail maintenance, beach clean-ups, water quality monitoring, invasive species removal, ecological monitoring, and native species plantings. In addition to the full 35-hour work week, the groups visit 3 local colleges and participate in team building recreational activities on the weekend.

The LEAF team hiking on our accessible streamside boardwalk, looking for fish, turtles, and snakes in Johnson’s Branch.

The LEAF team hiking on our accessible streamside boardwalk, looking for fish, turtles, and snakes in Johnson’s Branch.

Our LEAF team members came from Bronx/Manhattan, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Chicago, and Wisconsin, but seemed to feel right at home in the muggy, buggy ecology of lower, slower Delaware.  Our first day together was spent orienting the team to the land and history of Abbott’s, repairing our leaky frog pond, moving a stone path walkway, and touring our preserved, working grist mill.

The LEAF team take a short break among the pines during our orientation hike.

The LEAF team take a short break among the pines during our orientation hike.

The frog pond had been leaking water since it unthawed this spring, which spelled bad news for the frogs who relied on it for habitat and reproduction. However, through a generous donation to Abbott’s in memory of Geraldine Constance Brown (Temin) Wilkerson, who grew up on the banks of Abbott’s Pond in the Depression Era, we were able to purchase a new liner and water pump to repair the leaks. The LEAF team helped us drain the lower pool, install the new liner and pump, and rework the rock wall and foot path that surround the pond.

LEAF interns working on emptying out the lower part of our frog pond to look for leaks.

LEAF interns working on emptying out the lower part of our frog pond to look for leaks.

After a long day of shoveling, landscaping, and frog catching, the LEAF team pitched tents and camped out at Abbott’s for the night. As soon as everyone’s tents were set up, and spider free, the team enjoyed a relaxing evening of singalongs accompanied by the ukulele, along with a campfire and s’mores, which was a first for many of the group. After the chocolate, graham, and mallow ran out, we wondered over to the Morton Meadow, across from Abbott’s Pond, where Abbott’s staff led an astronomy observation and storytelling session.

A LEAF Mentor enjoying the warmth of the campfire and the gooeyness of a s’more.

A LEAF Mentor enjoying the warmth of the campfire and the gooeyness of a s’more.

Our second day with the LEAF team was quite adventurous. The morning was spent canoeing Abbott’s Pond, with paddles, loppers, and saws in hand! After paddling the whole length of the pond and spotting Great Blue Herons, Green Herons, and a plethora of baby turtles, we headed into pond’s swampy headwaters. Amongst the cool shade of the swamp’s American White Cedars, the LEAF team bared mosquitos and sulfur infused detritus to help us clear out logs and branches that our resident beaver population had so meticulously placed to block the canoeing trail. This canoe trail was used the very next day by Abbott’s staff for the first of our 3-part Summer Canoe Series, which was a great success in large part to the work these ladies did.

After washing away all the swampy muck and grabbing a bite to eat, we headed over our Isaacs-Greene Preserve, a 62-acre forested buffer with a small pond and tax ditch stream, for the afternoon. In a mere two hours, these LEAF team helped us plant more than 20 trees along the bank of the tax ditch stream that runs through the middle of the preserve, and is an upstream tributary of Abbott’s Pond. These trees should help to reinforce the stream bank, while filtering nutrients and sediments from the nearby agricultural fields. Along the hike into the property, we were surprisingly greeted by hundreds of baby toads enjoying the shaded trails, and we found the shed from a 5 foot long Black Rat Snake.

A post-paddle LEAF team fashion show, sporting the latest gear in log and branch removal.

A post-paddle LEAF team fashion show, sporting the latest gear in log and branch removal.

This is the second year that Abbott’s has partnered with the local Nature Conservancy office in Milton to work with the LEAF program. We couldn’t have been more grateful for their positive attitudes, results-driven work ethic, and passion for the environment. The Nature Conservancy proudly reports a successful and direct impact in the lives of LEAF Alumni, as 96% go straight to college after high school, 91% have an increased awareness of conservation career paths, and 70% have changed the environmental behaviors of friends and family back home.

The LEAF Team, turned tree huggers, at our last tree planting of the day.

The LEAF Team, turned tree huggers, at our last tree planting of the day.

There are 3 ways that you can visit Abbott’s and see the fruit of their labor: 1. The frog pond, just like all of our trails, is open for visitation 7 days a week from dawn till dusk. 2. Sign up for a membership with the Delaware Nature Society, which includes free canoe rentals on Abbott’s Pond. 3. Join us in December for the annual Christmas Bird Count, which will be conducted in part on our Isaacs-Greene Preserve.

If you’d like to catch up with the rest of the LEAF teams’ adventures, you can follow @nature_delaware or #tncleaf2015 on social media. You can follow Abbott’s on Facebook and Instagram

By Alice Mohrman, Education Coordinator, Abbott’s Mill Nature Center

A summer paddling expedition in Abbott’s Pond led us upstream to discover the hidden treasures in the cool shade of Johnson’s Branch.

Abbott's Pond

Abbott’s Pond

Point west and follow the expansive water garden of green heart-shaped waxy leaves dotted with the stout yellow flowers.  This hardy, native perennial is spatterdock, Nuphar advena, also known as Yellow Water Lily.  Used in traditional medicine, and a favorite edible for muskrat and beaver, this plant colonizes shallow water where the thick roots anchor into the muddy bottom of the pond.  The bulb-shaped flowers are pollinated by beetles and produce seeds for a variety of waterfowl.

Spatterdock bloom.

Spatterdock bloom.

Ebony Jewelwing,  Calopteryx maculate, are the graceful, yet acrobatic damselfly companions that dance beside your canoe as you meander along the shore toward the narrows.  These  “perchers”  often wait  patiently on plants at the stream edge before taking a quick sojourn over the water to capture gnats and other small insects .  Look for the territorial males, sporting a blue-green thorax and abdomen with jet black wings, courting brownish females with a distinct white patch or “stigma” on the tip of each wing.

Ebony Jewelwing damselfly.

Ebony Jewelwing damselfly.

A distinct canopy of trees beyond the active beaver lodge offers interest and respite from the sun.  The Atlantic White Cedar, Chamaecyparis thyoides, is a towering, ram-rod straight sentinel growing  in the bog at the entrance to the stream.  An extremely rot resistant evergreen species, this cypress (not really a cedar) tree is  able to reach great heights while growing in poorly drained acidic soil!   Two of the tallest Atlantic White Cedars are found in Milford, DE and check in at an impressive  72 and 76 feet  (DE Big Trees).

Atlantic White Cedar on the edge of Abbott's Pond.

Atlantic White Cedar on the edge of Abbott’s Pond.

A Prothonotary Warbler, Protonotaria citrea,  or Golden Swamp Warbler,  sings a loud, ringing version of  “zweet zweet zweet zweet zweet!” as we navigating the shallows, roots and branches.  A soft “psh-psh-psh” sound often brings these curious wood-warblers closer to view.  For nesting, this summer resident chooses a tree cavity, usually about 6 foot high, over or near water, to brood a large clutch with up to eight eggs.

The gorgeous Prothonotary Warbler gets its name from long-ago Roman Catholic clerks who wore bright yellow robes.

The gorgeous Prothonotary Warbler gets its name from long-ago Roman Catholic clerks who wore bright yellow robes.

Our sample of flora and fauna would not be complete without mentioning  Castor canandensis:  the beaver.  While working the night shift, these engineering animals constructed at least three structural barriers to for canoes.  We enjoyed the challenge of maneuvering  over, through and around these dams-which are not easy to deconstruct without heavy equipment!  After a beaver fells a tree, it trims off the large branches and drags it to the dam site.  The logs are forced into the mud with the wide trunk facing downstream.  The remaining braches and leaves, or crowns of the trees,  are positioned into the current to trap the silt and debris which widens the structure.  The beavers add  sticks, stones and mud to strengthen the dam, block the water flow and create a new wetland!

Beavers at their dam.

Beavers at their dam.

By Hazel Shinholt, Abbott’s Mill Nature Center Teacher/Naturalist

Warm weather is upon us and we see all kinds of insects scurrying about at Abbott’s Mill Nature Center.  One of the insects you may have walked right by (maybe even walked on) and never noticed is the antlion.   Antlions are in the family Myrmeleontidae and order Neuroptera.  They undergo complete metamorphosis.  The larvae look nothing like the adult.  The adults have wings and can look similar to a damselfly. The most noticeable differences are that the antlion has longer antennae that are clubbed at the end and the vein pattern in their wings is different from the damselfly.  The adult antlion is nocturnal but the larval stage is very active during the day.

Antlion Larva showing its big grasping mouthparts that is uses to subdue small insects that fall into its funnel-shaped trap.

Antlion Larva showing its big grasping mouthparts that is uses to subdue small insects that fall into its funnel-shaped trap.

It is larval stage of the antlion that I find most fascinating!  Antlion larvae are ominous looking creatures. They are gray/brown in color, with an oval shaped body covered in bristles, have short legs and large mandibles.  We have many near our meadow habitat at Abbott’s Mill Nature Center.

The Antlion larva waits for prey to drop into the bottom of the funnel-shaped trap, submerged in the sand.

The Antlion larva waits for prey to drop into the bottom of the funnel-shaped trap, submerged in the sand.

Antlion larvae dig a cone-shaped “pit” in loose sandy or dry soil (look for soil that looks like a rain drop hit it and left a cone-shaped impression in the soil).  The antlion buries itself in the bottom of the pit and waits for its next meal to arrive. Only part of its head is visible at the bottom of the pit.  When an ant or other small insect crawls near the edge of the trap, the loose soil gives way and the prey falls into the “pit of death.”    When the prey reaches the bottom, the antlion then grabs the prey with its strong mandibles and drags it under the soil.  It pierces the prey and feasts on the body fluid of the prey.  The antlion has no use for the carcass of the prey and flicks it out of the pit and the cycle begins again.

By Matthew Babbitt, Abbott’s Mill Nature Center Manager

Spring is in full bloom here at Abbott’s Mill Nature Center!  Flowers are blooming, bees are buzzing, birds are chirping, frogs are croaking, and fish are biting.  While spring brings plenty of excitement for nature enthusiasts of all passions, there are a few birds that have arrived here at Abbott’s Mill Nature Center that we hold near and dear to our heart.

The first “birds of spring” that arrived were the largest member of the swallow family, Purple Martins. These birds will spend the winter in South America and then migrate all over North America during their mating season. Adult females have a lighter breast than the adult males, and both take part in building nests and feeding young.

Purple Martins taking a break from chasing insects.  Photo by Matt Babbitt.

Purple Martins taking a break from chasing insects. Photo by Matt Babbitt.

Populations that migrate to the Eastern United States are completely dependent on man-made structures, like the ones pictured above, for nesting. Researchers theorize that this is due to conditioning over many generations, as early writings from European settlers note that Native Americans placed whitened gourds near their crops and dwellings to attract Purple Martins in order to take advantage of their voracious appetite for insects.

Not long after the Purple Martins arrived, their cousins and the most common member of the swallow family, Barn Swallows announced their arrival with flashes of glossy blue wings and their chitter-chattery calls. They winter in Central and South America and then make their way back to North America during their mating season. Barn Swallows are also largely dependent on man-made structures to build their nest upon, which they make out of a mixture of mud and grass. In the communities of Tangier and Smith Island, located in the heart of the Chesapeake Bay, watermen and their families affectionately call these birds “Shanty Birds”, due to the multitude of nests that are built each spring under their crab shanties that sit just above the water on pilings.

Later in the year, the Barn Swallows will be raising their families in mud cup nests attached to the barn, mill, or house here at Abbott's Mill.  Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Later in the year, the Barn Swallows will be raising their families in mud cup nests attached to the barn, mill, or house here at Abbott’s Mill. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Barn Swallows have the deepest forked tail of the swallow family, and you can catch a glimpse the bright white dots that highlight their tail when it is fully fanned out. Their swooping and diving through the air isn’t for naught, as all members of the swallow family are aerial insectivores, meaning they dine solely on flying insects. The adult male has bolder colorings and a darker throat than the adult female, and soon we will be seeing the pale-yellow beaks of their young.

Finally, just this past week we spotted the first pair of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds fluttering about in the native plant demonstration garden just in front of our Visitor Center. The only hummingbird that breeds in the Eastern United States, this short-footed, fast-flapping bird spends its winters in Central America, sometimes crossing the Gulf of Mexico during its migration. Adult males, like the one pictured below, are easily identified by their eye-catching, iridescent throat. All hummingbirds are uniquely adapted to feeding on the nectar of flowers with elongated beaks and wings that flap up to 53 times per second. Not only are they the smallest species of bird known, but they are also the only species that can both fly backwards and hover in place.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird by Derek Stoner.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird by Derek Stoner.

If you have a hummingbird feeder at home, making your own “nectar” is an easy process. Start by combining mixture of 4 parts water to 1 part sugar in a large pot. Bring the mixture to a boil, with occasional stirring to aid the dissolving process, and then let it cool. Don’t add food coloring or honey to your nectar mixture. It may be harmful to them, and all they want is sugar-water.  Clean your feeder once a week with a weak bleach and water solution to prevent and kill mold.  While hummingbirds will also dine on nature’s nectar, keeping your feeder out until their latest migration period, usually late September to early October, will help ensure your viewing pleasure and a final dose of energy for their long flight south. Additionally, research has found that these fascinating birds even remember where you put your feeder from year to year, so make sure to place your feeder in an optimal viewing area for you and your family and mark the spot when you take it down for the winter.