Botany

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!

By Derek Stoner, Seasonal Program Team Leader

A male Wood Frog makes his way to the breeding pools near the Ashland Marsh. Photo by Derek Stoner.

A male Wood Frog makes his way to the breeding pools near the Ashland Marsh. Photo by Derek Stoner.

The days are getting warmer, and all around us, Signs of Spring abound.   The first wildflowers of Spring are popping through the leaf litter layer, while amphibians like Wood Frogs are emerging from their Winter lair to make their way to wetlands for breeding purposes.

You are invited to take part in the Sixth Annual Signs of Spring Challenge through the Delaware Nature Society.  Each week for the next nine weeks, you encouraged to get outside and look for signs of plants emerging and animals arriving.  The species we selected as classic Signs of Spring are found widely throughout most of Delaware and southeastern Pennsylvania.

Clusters of Snowdrops-- a non-native wildflower- are emerging as the weather warms. Photo by Hilary Stoner.

Clusters of Snowdrops– a non-native wildflower- are emerging as the weather warms. Photo by Hilary Stoner.

The challenge is to find all 20 of these plants and animals, and make a note about the date that you find them.  Many are already out there and ready to be seen in this first full week of March, while others (like Barn Swallows and Trout Lily) are likely still weeks away from appearing.

Here is the link to open the Signs of Spring Challenge spreadsheet : Signs of Spring Challenge 2016

Enjoy exploring the outdoors this Spring, and please come out to one of our Delaware Nature Society-managed properties to explore and search for Signs of Spring with us!

Check out the upcoming programs through the Delaware Nature Society that will connect you with Signs of Spring during the month of March:

Early Spring Frogs and Woodcocks at Coverdale Farm,  Wednesday March 16, 5:30 to 8:00pm

Spring Equinox Hike and Campfire at Ashland, Sunday March 20, 5:00 to 7:00pm

Call 302-239-2334, extension 0 to register for these programs.

By Joe Sebastiani, Ashland Nature Center Manager, and Dave Pro, Ashland Property Steward

The Delaware Nature Society is in the process of converting some of the Coverdale Farm Preserve grassland areas from cool-season, exotic agricultural grasses to native warm-season grasses and wildflowers.  The process takes years, but is well worth the wait.  Our goal is to convert over 50-acres, which will provide a diversity of native meadow species, and create much better habitat for a wide variety of mammals, birds, insects, and much more.  Dave Pro and I led a group of DNS members on a walk through the meadow last week to showcase how it is coming along.  The answer…beautifully!  Wildflowers such as Wild Senna and Partridge Pea were in full bloom, as were native grasses such as Purpletop, Indian Grass, and Big Bluestem.  Wild Bergamot was just finishing up its bloom, and multiple species of butterflies were still nectaring from these plants.

The Coverdale Farm Preserve meadow restoration as it appeared during the second week of August, 2015.

The Coverdale Farm Preserve meadow restoration as it appeared during the second week of August, 2015.

The scale of this project is impressive.  For a project of this size, 50 seeds per square foot are planted, representing over 20 native plant species.  The federal government, through a “habitat restoration lease”, pays the Delaware Nature Society to do this project through the Early Successional Habitat program.  To prepare the site for seeding, we first had to wipe out the existing non-native, cold-season grass that existed here.  Then, the meadow was seeded over late-fall, and a cover crop Winter Rye, was also planted to prevent weeds from getting established.  We then had to mow the new meadow several times in the first year to prevent any annual weeds that did get established from flowering.  The young meadow plants don’t really start to show themselves until the second year of growth.  Now that the meadow is established, we were able to conduct a prescribed burn this spring.  This helped to remove built up thatch from previous winter mowings, giving the young native plants room to grow and photosynthesize.

Wildlife has responded to the meadow transformation.  Many species of birds can be found in this location now, and include nesting Eastern Meadowlark, American Kestrel, and a variety of sparrows, warblers, and other species such as Orchard Oriole.  With the abundance of flowering plants available, butterfly numbers have increased.  Monarch butterflies were easily seen on our walk last week as they nectared on the remaining Wild Bergamot.  Great Spangled Fritillary, Pearl Crescent, Tiger Swallowtail, and Black Swallowtail were all swarming the meadow as well.  In the past, with few flowering plants, we would have had a tough time finding these species here.

A Black Swallowtail is pictured here nectaring on Wild Bergamot in the Coverdale Farm Preserve Meadow.

A Black Swallowtail is pictured here nectaring on Wild Bergamot in the Coverdale Farm Preserve Meadow.

Another butterfly, the Variegated Fritillary, is a common sight in the Coverdale Farm Preserve meadow in August.

Another butterfly, the Variegated Fritillary, is a common sight in the Coverdale Farm Preserve meadow in August.  Disclaimer: this one is feeding on Red Clover, which is an unwanted weed in the meadow.

Some of the wildflower species that we planted in this meadow include Bush-clover, Tall White Beardtongue, Early Goldenrod, Black-eyed Susan, Marsh Blazing-star, Partridge Pea, and Wild Senna.  Now, other native plants are coming in on their own as well, including Common Milkweed, and Butterfly Weed.

Wild Senna is a large wildflower that has formed drifts of yellow across parts of the meadow.

Wild Senna is a large wildflower that has formed drifts of yellow across parts of the meadow.

A lucky group of Delaware Nature Society members were able to enjoy the guided walk through the Coverdale Farm Preserve meadow last week.

A lucky group of Delaware Nature Society members were able to enjoy the guided walk through the Coverdale Farm Preserve meadow last week.

This is just one of the many habitat restoration projects that the Delaware Nature Society is conducting on properties including Ashland Nature Center, Coverdale Farm Preserve, Middle Run Natural Area, Dupont Environmental Education Center, and Abbott’s Mill Nature Center.  We will offer more free walks for members in the coming months, and we would love to show you some of these wonderful places.