General Ecology

By Derek Stoner, Seasonal Program Coordinator

A Wood Frog makes its way down to the marsh at Ashland on March 1, 2011.  What day will they emerge this year?

A Wood Frog makes its way down to the marsh at Ashland on March 1, 2011. What day will they emerge this year?

Spring officially begins today–  Friday, March 20th.  The weather outside may still not look like Spring, but the season has been pushing the envelope recently as Winter slowly relinquishes its grip and gives way to the inevitable arrival of true Signs of Spring:  the plants and animals that we count on as true signals of the changing season.

Just in the past week at Ashland Nature Center, keen observers have noted emerging Skunk Cabbage, Groundhogs running about, and Snowdrops in full bloom.   With warmer temperatures and rain in the future forecast, the big movement of amphibians to the wetland habitats will get underway.

To preview photos of Signs of Spring that are on the way, we invite you to view this video.

The twenty plants and animals shown in the video are the unique Signs of Spring selected to be part of our fifth annual Delaware Nature Society Signs of Spring Challenge.  Wherever you are this Spring, keep an eye out for these interesting sights and make a note of when you first observe them outdoors.  See how quickly you can tally up the full twenty!  Will it take you through the month of May or will you find them all by the end of April?  Only time will tell, and you can share this challenge with your fellow naturalists and family members.

To participate, click here:   Signs of Spring Challenge 2015

Download and print this form to keep track of your observations this Spring.  The challenge is free and just for fun– and you are the winner since you’ll be enjoying a more rewarding experience afield this Spring.

Please photograph and document the Signs of Spring that you see and share them with us by email at derek@delnature.org .  We will post a collection of the best photographs and stories from Spring 2015 in a follow-up post at the conclusion of the Spring season.

By Lori Athey, Habitat Outreach Coordinator

What are birds eating right now in your backyard habitat?  If you have trees or shrubs in your yard that hold fruit all winter, American Robins, Cedar Waxwings, Eastern Bluebirds, and even European Starlings are probably enjoying whatever fruits that are remaining. 

Winterberry is a native shrub that holds its fruit all winter, or at least until hungry birds eat it.  Eastern Bluebirds, American Robins, and Hermit Thrush are species that will be attracted to this in your landscape.  Photo by Lori Athey.

Winterberry is a native shrub that holds its fruit all winter, or at least until hungry birds eat it. Eastern Bluebirds, American Robins, and Hermit Thrush are species that will be attracted to this in your landscape. Photo by Lori Athey.

If you haven’t yet cut back your asters, coreopsis, and coneflowers, seed-eating birds will be pecking at the old flowerheads and on the ground beneath for fallen seeds.  When there is extended snow-cover, it is especially important for birds to be able to access seeds on old flower-heads above the snow, since they can’t get to the ones on the ground.  American Goldfinches are famous for this type of behavior, but others that can be found doing this in the yard include Dark-eyed Juncos, Field Sparrows, American Tree Sparrows and Pine Siskins.

Standing stalks of seed bearing plants like Purple Coneflower provide food for a number of bird species such as American Goldfinches.  Photo by Lori Athey.

Standing stalks of seed bearing plants like Purple Coneflower provide food for a number of bird species such as American Goldfinches. Photo by Lori Athey.

How do you provide food for birds that do not eat seeds or fruits?  Lately, I have seen birds digging through the fallen leaves in my landscape beds.  Did you know that leaf litter is full of insects, spiders, and other goodies that your birds can eat in winter? In addition, toads, fireflys, some butterflies, and other beneficial insects winter in those leaves.  Often, flocks of American Robin, Common Grackle, Northern Flicker, Carolina Wren, Eastern Towhee and other sparrow species can be seen digging through leaf-litter for protein-packed overwintering insects and spiders.  

Consider leaving leaf litter on your flower beds not only as mulch, but to provide habitat for insects, spiders, crustaceans, snails and other small organisms that birds will seek out.  Photo by Lori Athey.

Consider leaving leaf litter on your flower beds not only as mulch, but to provide habitat for insects, spiders, crustaceans, snails and other small organisms that birds will seek out. Photo by Lori Athey.

So next year, rake those fallen leaves into your landscaped beds for the wildlife. Forget about shredding them –that kills beneficial insects and takes away that nice warm blanket that toads and others crave for their winter rest. Delay cutting back your seed bearing perennials until spring. And yes, add more fruiting shrubs and seeding wildflowers to your landscape next year for the birds too –you can get them all at the Delaware Nature Society Native Plant Sale, May 1-4.

 

Some plants to consider for providing late-winter bird food:

Chokeberry (Aronia species)

American Holly (Ilex opaca)

Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata)

Bayberry (Morella species) – Yellow-rumped Warblers love it!

Virginia Rose (Rosa virginiana)

Pines (Pine species) – (Red-breasted Nuthatches seek out pine nuts)

Cone flowers & Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia species)

Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea NOT doubles)

Tickseed & Coreopsis (Coreopsis species)

By Derek Stoner, Conservation Project Coordinator

To continue a fun tradition begun two years ago, the Delaware Nature Society invites you to participate in the Third Annual Signs of Spring Challenge.   The basic rules are simple:  All Signs must be observed on the grounds of the Ashland Nature Center, in order for this to be a fair contest.  Come visit the center and help us discover the first flowers, the first frogs, and the first turtles of the season!   

We also encourage you to keep a blank form at home where you can record the observations you make in your own backyard or local park.   The most fun part of this contest is that you are primed to be looking and listening at all times for these signs, wherever you are this Spring.  Write down the date and location of your first observations.  You will learn a lot and become a better naturalist by being part of this challenge.

Bloodroot is one of the first wildflowers to bloom in Spring in our region. Look for it to appear in the next month! Image by Derek Stoner.

The selected Signs of Spring include these six flowering plants: Snowdrops, Skunk Cabbage, Bloodroot, Spring Beauty, Trout Lily, and Violet.   The first bloom of these flowers found at Ashland is declared the first of Spring for this contest.

To participate, simply download the entry form:  Signs of Spring Contest 2013

Two Signs have already occurred this week:  the first Groundhog and the first blooming Snowdrops!  These emergence dates are already marked on the entry form and everyone gets these two guesses correct.

Fill out your guesses as to which of the remaining 18 species will occur each week, and send this form back (as an email or fax) to Derek Stoner (derek@delawarenaturesociety.org) by Monday, March 4. 

If you would like some hints as to possible timing of these Signs of Spring, check out the past two year’s results:  

Signs of Spring Contest 2011 

 Signs of Spring Challenge 2012 Final

Good luck and enjoy observing the Signs of Spring!

By: Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

The Delaware Nature Society’s Naturalist Certification Series concluded last month with 12 graduates.  Congratulations to our new certified Naturalists!  Ruthe Hay, Gary Charles, Judy Charles, Tim Weymouth, Christy Fitzpatrick, Glenda Clay, Dianne Gross, Marian Henderson, Alison Long, Janet Sydnor, Mary Perkins, and Stephanie Seeney were our 2012 graduates.  The course was offered at both Ashland and Abbott’s Mill Nature Center.

The Naturalist Certification Series students visited the DuPont Environmental Education Center to learn about Aquatic Ecosystems.  Photo by Ruthe Hay

The Naturalist Certification Series students visited the DuPont Environmental Education Center to learn about Aquatic Ecosystems. Photo by Ruthe Hay

The Naturalist Certification Series runs from April to September and each student attends 8 lectures and 8 field trips on such topics as Mammals, Terrestrial Ecosystems, Reptiles and Amphibians, Birds, Insects, Wildflowers, Shrubs and Trees, and Aquatic Ecosystems.  The course has run since 2007 and over 140 people have taken it.

Students get hands-on to learn about nature, and after field trips, record observations and experiences in a journal.  Photo by Reese Robinson

Students get hands-on to learn about nature, and after field trips, record observations and experiences in a journal. Photo by Reese Robinson

Students create a naturalist notebook to capture their experience which includes narrative, field notes, photos, drawings, etc.   Many of our students are school teachers in Delaware who take the course for 60-hours of inservice credit, and pass on their learning and enthusiasm about nature to their school students.  Delaware Nature Society staff also take the course and get trained in natural history and how to approach the study of nature.  Anyone can take the class however, and most of our students just take it for fun!  If you think that searching for Coyote scat, exploring ecosystems, searching for frogs in a wetland at night, seeing all kinds of birds, capturing and identifying insects, learning to correctly identify wildflowers, becoming a local tree expert, and catching what swims in a stream sounds like fun…then this course is for you!

Jim White's reptile and amphibian field trip, where students search for frogs, snakes, salamanders, lizards and turtles in a wetland after dark is consistently the favorite of our students.  Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Jim White’s reptile and amphibian field trip, where students search for frogs, snakes, salamanders, lizards and turtles in a wetland after dark is consistently the favorite of our students. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Start making your plans for 2013 if you would like to be a part of this class!  The class is $200 for DNS members and $250 for non-members.  Register here.  If you are a Delaware school teacher, you qualify to get reimbursed for most of the tuition and receive 60 inservice-credit hours if you graduate.  Call us at (302) 239-2334 if you have any questions and would like to take this class in 2013.  Here is the schedule:

Mammals – lecture: April 4, 6-9pm; field trip: April 6, 1 to 4pm – Derek Stoner

Terrestrial Ecosystems – lecture: May 2, 6-8:30pm; field trip: May 4, 8am to 2pm Joe Sebastiani

Reptiles and Amphibians – lecture: May 16, 6-9pm; field trip: May 18, 5:30-11pm – Jim White

Birds – lecture: June 13, 6-8pm; field trip: June 15, 7am to 11am – Derek Stoner

Insects – lecture: August 8, 6-9pm; field trip: August 10, 9am-3pm – Jim White

Wildflowers – lecture:  August 21, 6-8pm; field trip: August 22, 5:30-7:30pm – Joe Sebastiani

Trees and Shrubs – lecture: Sept. 12, 6-8pm; field trip: Sept. 14, 9:00am-12:00pm – John Harrod

Aquatic Ecosystems – lecture: Sept 26, 6-8pm; field trip: September 28, 9am-2pm – Kristen Travers and Lesley Bensinger