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!!!

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 Dan O’Brien, Community Supported Agriculture Farmer:

Spring is officially here in Delaware! At Coverdale Farm Preserve on the first day of spring we welcomed five new porcine pals to our ever-growing farm family. Between 5:00pm – 10:00pm on March 20th our black-spotted sow, a heritage cross-breed of Gloucestershire Old Spot and Tamworth, delivered a litter of five healthy and robust piglets. Farm Manager Michele Wales and CSA Farmer Dan O’Brien were on hand to help the laboring mother through her first farrowing.

The piglets will be used for Coverdale Farm education programs as part of the living classroom.  Students will learn about the farm habitat, animal behavior, and the husbandry needs of these highly intelligent creatures.

The piglets will be used for Coverdale Farm education programs as part of the living classroom. Students will learn about the farm habitat, animal behavior, and the husbandry needs of these highly intelligent creatures.

Michele was cool under pressure and knew exactly what to do at all the right times, an experienced pig midwife. Dan took lead as an enthusiastic assistant, learning the ropes and capturing the process in pictures. We made certain to keep the bedding clean as the sow made mounding nests during delivery. Next came the mounting of a heat lamp to warm the tiny piglets as they entered the world. As each piglet was born we kept watchful eyes to ensure the new arrivals were breathing freely, seeking and receiving mother’s milk, and huddling under the heat lamp together. Our eyes were also fixed on the sow. Post-delivery, it is vital to see her move around, drink water, and eat food. Healthy piglets only remain healthy if the mother is strong!

The new piglets are very hungry!

The new piglets are very hungry!

After a few cold, dark hours, all of the piglets had finally arrived and aggressively pursued the mother’s swollen teats and the warmth of her body. Total success! With all of the new baby piglets safely piled upon one another for warmth, Farmers Michele and Dan were able to call it a night knowing that the new happy family would be safe and sound in their warm straw bed. Over the next few days the little piglets have become more active and will continue to grow at the rate of around one pound per day.  Enjoy this short video of the piglets getting their first meal.

Come and visit these piglets along with our other farm babies on May 9! Coverdale Farm will be OPEN for visitation each Saturday beginning May 9 through September 26, 9:00am – 4:00pm.

By Joe Sebastiani, Ashland Nature Center Manager

We were walking through the dense Terra Firme Jungle south of the Napo River in eastern Ecuador.  My group stopped in front of me to photograph a stunning red flower.  I wasn’t paying too much attention to them, but to my surprise, in an instant they all started screaming!  In a flash, some kind of furry animal was headed straight towards me, and it was the size of a small dog.  Not only was my group screaming, but I screamed as well! The animal did not see me, and in its fright flight, skidded and slammed right into my leg.  By the dusky smell it gave off, we knew we had scared a White-lipped Peccary just off the trail.

This is just one of hundreds of memories that come forth when recalling the amazing DNS trip to Ecuador in November of 2014. Joined by our tour leader Forrest Rowland, we toured the country on a birding trip of a lifetime.  You might remember Forrest as the first Hawk Watcher at the Ashland Hawk Watch in 2007.  He spent the next two seasons as the Hawk Watcher at the Cape Henlopen Hawk Watch.  Now, Forrest is the manager for birding tours in the western hemisphere for Rockjumper Tours, and is an Ecuadorian bird expert.

Birding from the canopy tower in a huge Kapok tree at the Sacha Lodge in Amazonian Ecuador.

Birding from the canopy tower in a huge Kapok tree at the Sacha Lodge in Amazonian Ecuador.

On our trip, we ventured up and down the eastern and western slopes of the Andes, and down into the Amazonian lowlands for 19 days.  The focus was birding, and saw a huge selection of species in a wide spectrum of habitat types including temperate, subtropical, and tropical forest as well as high elevation Paramo grasslands up to almost 15,000 feet.  That elevation was not so kind to everyone in the group and resulted in a few people who contracted temporary altitude sickness.

There are more than 1,600 species of birds in Ecuador, and we experienced 771 of them.  This is a mind-numbing variety of bird species to see, and each day we traveled to new habitats where there was a whole new suite of sights, sounds, and of course birds.  This, along with sightings of 25 species of mammals which included 8 monkey species made for a very special trip.

Please enjoy this 5-minute video of our trip highlights.

Top ten bird species (of the 771 that we found) voted on by the group:

1. Crested Owl  2. Torrent Duck 3. Sword-billed Hummingbird 4. Great Potoo 5. Banded Antbird 6. Andean Condor 7.Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe 8. Hoatzin 9. Wire-crested Thorntail (hummingbird) 10. Golden-headed Quetzal.

Primates and other mammals seen by the group:

White-tailed (paramo) Deer, White-lipped Peccary, Tayra, Andean Long-tailed Weasel, Olinguito (described to science in 2013), Lesser Long-nosed Bat, White-lined Sac-winged Bat, Greater Bulldog Bat, Tent-making Bat, Fishing Bat, Nine-banded Armadillo, Forest Rabbit, Lemurine Night Monkey, Spix’s Night Monkey, Red Howler Monkey, Common Wooly Monkey, White-fronted Capuchin Monkey, Common Squirrel Monkey, Dusky Titi Monkey, Napo Tamarin, Capybara, Central American Agouti, Black Agouti, Western Dwarf Squirrel, Red-tailed Squirrel.

If you are interested in traveling with the Delaware Nature Society on future trips, we are offering a trip to Costa Rica, October 25 to November 5.  The $3,349 double-occupancy price is guaranteed through April 24th, so make your reservation with us soon!  Receive $50 off the trip by attending a Costa Rica Preview presentation at Ashland Nature Center on April 13, 6pm.  Light fare will be served as you learn more about this trip.  Call (302) 239-2334 ext. 134 to register for the preview night or inquire about the Costa Rica trip.


Birding the high elevation grassland habitat called Paramo.