Botany

Autumn among the beeches

Ian Stewart

If life is getting you down or you’re feeling particularly stressed why not take a gentle afternoon stroll through a beech wood? Walking through a beech wood in the fall is a serene experience that will instantly melt away your troubles. And if you look closely, the beeches have a few surprises in store…..

The American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) is a fairly common tree across almost all of the eastern United States and is easily recognized by its smooth, pale gray bark and its above-ground ‘knees’ formed by the tops of its shallow roots. We have several stands of old, large beech trees around our DNS sites because early settlers tended to leave them alone as they often grow on hillsides which aren’t attractive sites for home building or farming, and also because their hard wood is difficult to cut.

At this time of year the ground beneath a beech wood is littered with a carpet of their golden leaves and if you wait long enough you will see a variety of mammals and birds rustling though them in search of fallen beech nuts. These distinctive triangular nuts emerge in pairs from their tough, furry husks when ripe and are beloved by deer, squirrels and Blue Jays and were apparently the favored food of the extinct Passenger Pigeon. Beech nuts are edible to humans once they have been peeled although they are apparently bitter and may even be toxic in large quantities so we do not recommend that you eat them.

Part of the reason beech woods are so attractive to walk through is that they are remarkably open, with very little understory of bushes or shrubs to navigate through. This is because beech trees are thought to be allelopathic, meaning they exude a chemical into the soil around them which inhibits the growth of other plants. Sometimes the only plant you see growing near a beech tree is a ring of ‘root sprouts’ growing around its trunk, which is a direct way through which beech trees spread in addition to their nuts.

Still, despite their placid outward appearance beech woods are tinged with intrigue. If you get down on your hands and knees you will notice that most of the trees have a circle of mysterious brown weedy stems around their base. These are known as Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) and are among a handful of plants that don’t photosynthesize but instead live parasitically by burrowing into the roots of beech trees and extracting their nutrients.

So please take the time to explore a beech wood this fall, but be sure to appreciate the small struggles going on underneath these giant trees!

By: Tim Freiday, Middle Run Project Coordinator

The group of DelNature staff and volunteers get ready to set off on the annual Bio-Blitz in Middle Run Natural Area.

On Sunday, September 3, 2017, Delaware Nature Society held the annual Bio-Blitz at Middle Run Natural Area. Although rainy at 6:00 am, the skies cleared by 7:00 am and it turned out to be a very productive day with over 200 different species of organism recorded. In the park, 88 species of birds were recorded. Some of the highlights were 20 species of warbler including a Brewster’s Warbler (a rarely seen hybrid), Nashville, Tennessee, Blackburnian, Cape May, and Black-throated Blue and Green Warblers. We had birds everywhere we looked, and had some great views of many. The girdled Bradford Pears continue to provide quality looks at some real quality birds, with American Redstarts, Tennessee, Magnolia, Black-and-white, and Chestnut-sided Warblers perching alongside much larger Brown Thrashers and Gray Catbirds. We also had a continuing Alder Flycatcher who “pipped” only a few times, and Veery were around today. Surprisingly, a nocturnal Common Nighthawk was also flying around in the late morning.  Check out the close-up Northern Flicker below!

 

All of the checklists for the day in chronological order are at the links below:

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S38987553

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S38976751

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S38984241

There have been some excellent photos of some of the fall migrant warblers being posted on the Middle Run flickr account by the likes of Hank Davis and Derek Stoner. You can check out those pictures by following this link:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/middlerunbirding/

Around a 100 insects were identified at least to the family level with the help of UD entomologists Ashley Kennedy and Adam Mitchell. Some highlights from the arthropod realm include a Spiny Oak Slug caterpillar, Hickory Tussock Moth, Locust Borer, Ornate Plant Bug, Cicada Killer, Green Darner and many more. There was a very bright Red Admiral butterfly which must have just emerged. Participants learned about the food web of arthropods in our area, and got a glimpse of how complex it really is. Middle Run has a healthy mix of arthropods, with many predatory spiders and insects signifying an abundance of herbivorous insects. No wonder the birds like it here so much! It’s also not surprising that there are so many insects given the diversity and abundance of plants at Middle Run. At least 50 different species of plants were identified today, with many beneficial native species. Some are very showy and are flowering right now, like the Evening Primrose. We only found a handful of reptiles and amphibians today, but there were some nice ones such as Black Racer, Garter Snake, and American Toad.

Hickory Tussock Moth

Hickory Tussock Moth

This year’s BioBlitz showed how truly special and utterly important Middle Run Valley Park is for the multitude of life that our region supports. From the local birds and insects to the long distance migrants that refuel here, to the people that come and unwind by taking in the natural world Middle Run is a true gem that we should all be grateful for. In appreciating the importance of Middle Run we are shown the importance of conserving natural lands everywhere, and we are called to action to protect our natural world.

This past Tuesday was the first Tuesday Morning Bird Walk at Middle Run of the fall 2017 season. These walks are free and open to the public, and Delaware Nature Society staff will lead them each Tuesday at 8am through October.  The walks are sponsored by New Castle County Parks.  Come join us as we appreciate birds and nature!

Happy Birding!

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

“I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree” (Joyce Kilmer, 1913).

Trying to identify trees is a lot of fun and can be done by anyone with both patience and a good field guide because almost all trees belonging to the same species have the same general appearance in terms of their size, bark, and leaf shape and arrangement. Still, sometimes one comes across a specimen that stands out from the others, perhaps because of its unusual appearance or location. These are my four favorite trees found on DelNature lands.

1) This massive American Sycamore is affectionately known as “Old Mr Knobbles” and is a much-visited centerpiece of the Ashland Nature Center floodplain. Although there are several huge Sycamores growing along the creek they all have a single vertical trunk whereas this specimen has two equally thick trunks, one of which seems to defy gravity by growing almost horizontally!

American Sycamore, Ashland Nature Center

“Old Mr Knobbles” American Sycamore, Ashland Nature Center

2) This Gray Birch stands alone in the corner of the hilltop behind Coverdale Farm. There was a pair of Gray Birches standing side by side here for many years but one was blown down by a storm in the spring of 2016, leaving this distinctively-colored tree standing forlornly against a dramatic backdrop of sweeping fields.

Gray Birch, Coverdale Farm Preserve

Gray Birch, Coverdale Farm Preserve

3) The great majority of trees have just one trunk but this monster Bitternut Hickory hidden away in the woods of Coverdale Farm Preserve has no fewer than six! Although one of the trunks is fairly small and another two are joined at the base it is still an unusual tree as the six trunks form a neat crown that supports the many branches.

Bitternut Hickory with Six Trunks, Coverdale Farm Preserve

Bitternut Hickory with Six Trunks, Coverdale Farm Preserve

4) Swamp Oak. This striking pale gray tree is tucked away in a dark corner of Burrows Run Preserve. As with White Oaks the trunk is relatively smooth near the base but begins to peel and flake further up the tree. However the peeling is so pronounced on Swamp Oaks that the bark seems to hang in sheets like plates of armor!

Swamp Oak, Burrows Run Preserve

Swamp Oak, Burrows Run Preserve

The Plate-Like Bark of a Swamp Oak, Burrows Run Preserve

The Plate-Like Bark of a Swamp Oak, Burrows Run Preserve

There are many beautiful trees scattered around our properties. Next time you walk our trails be sure to look carefully into the woods – you may find your own favorite tree!