Birds

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!!!

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

 

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 Ian Stewart

Delaware Nature Society has over 200 nest boxes spread around the properties we own or help manage which we installed to provide nest sites for a variety of birds. Every summer these boxes are monitored by a team of volunteers who track over 100 nesting attempts by 5-6 bird species (and we are always looking for more people to help with this – please get in touch if you’d like to get involved!). You’d be wrong to think the boxes stand idle throughout the winter however – it’s just that most of the action now takes place at night!

Several birds often roost in them during the winter, including Screech Owls, Eastern Bluebirds and some woodpeckers, which they probably do to protect them from the elements such as wind and rain. It is likely several degrees warmer inside a nest box than outside of it and for a small bird on a very cold night this could be the difference between life and death. Bluebirds take this a little further and are famous for ‘bundling’, where several birds squeeze into the same box for the night, probably keeping each other warm with their body heat.

A male bluebird entering a nest box

A male bluebird entering a nest box in winter

This year we’re making a special effort to check our boxes during the winter too. Sometimes it’s obvious that birds have been roosting in our boxes as they leave their droppings behind. The droppings in the photo below were almost certainly from a bluebird that has been eating Oriental Bittersweet. Bluebirds usually eat insects but at this time of year these are hard to find so they switch their diet to berries, and this exotic invasive vine is one of the few local plants that still has berries on it in February. You can help bluebirds in winter by planting berry-producing native bushes and shrubs such as Winterberry, Viburnums and Hollies. We will be following these boxes all through the year to see if bluebirds end up nesting in the same boxes that were used in winter.

Bluebird droppings inside a nest box

Bluebird droppings show they have been using this nest box

It’s also worth checking nest boxes in winter for less-desirable occupants. About 10% of our nest boxes are occupied by white-footed or deer mice during the winter. These nocturnal mice build fluffy nests inside boxes and sleep in them during the day. We always dump out mice and their nests during the winter, which may seem unkind but if left in place their urine and feces can damage boxes or carry disease, and birds won’t use boxes already occupied by mice. If you do this yourself, don’t use your hands to dislodge mice and their nests in case you pick up any disease or get bitten, but instead gently ease out the box contents with a stout stick.

Two deer mice fast asleep in this box

Two deer mice fast asleep in this box

This box at Coverdale Farm Preserve contained a furry nest with no fewer than 15 uneaten hickory nuts, which was interesting as this is not a common tree at the Preserve. These had probably been stored in the box by a Flying Squirrel, a nocturnal mammal which does not hibernate and requires food all winter. The squirrel cached the nuts here to provide a food supply for later in the winter, so to be sure the little guy wouldn’t go hungry we left the nuts below the box.

Hickory nuts cached in this nest box by a flying squirrel

Hickory nuts cached in this nest box by a flying squirrel

So just because you never see anything going inside your nest boxes in winter, don’t assume they aren’t being used!