Mammals

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.

20141104_095158

Birding the high elevation grassland habitat called Paramo.

 

By Mary Ann Levan, Teacher Naturalist

The next time the polar vortex dips down our way, here’s a way to take some pleasure from it…call to mind the forgotten joy of a “Snow Day!” announcement and head outside to look for signs of animals!  A cold winter morning can surprise you with a breathtaking pastel sunrise.

Cold, pastel sunrise.  Mary Ann Levan.

Cold, pastel sunrise. Mary Ann Levan.

Speaking of breathtaking, some folks even have a tradition of getting out on the very coldest day of the year.   This intrepid group hiked the trails of Ashland Nature Center at the beginning of the “Season of the Vortex”, fully equipped with face masks and multiple hand warmers stuffed into our mittens.

Prepared for yet another Polar Vortex!

Prepared for yet another Polar Vortex!

This snapshot of the thermometer confirms that it was at least one of the coldest days of this very cold winter.

This snapshot of the thermometer confirms that it was at least one of the coldest days of this very cold winter.

On this very cold and snowy exploration of the Ashland fields and forests, we were delighted to find a dazzling array of tracks left behind by animals also exploring the grounds in search of food and water.  After this first taste of “animals in winter”, the hunt was on!  As the snows continued to fall and the wonderful packed base developed, I made trips into open fields, past streams and woody field edges in search of signs of animals.  Amy White joined me to go out on foot, skis, and snowshoes for what has been a once in a lifetime experience of polar life at the low latitudes!  Following is a composite of some of the tracks we found on these winter explores. 

This winter has had multiple deep snowfalls, severe cold, and persistent snow cover, making it more difficult for animals to excavate to plants they rely on for food. Starting in open terrain, we find a common track of an animal that often crosses open fields but browses for food along field edges and in woods as well.  In severe winters with heavy snow cover, we find these animals in our yards as well, nibbling on ornamental plantings for survival.

Deer tough it out in the winter, and this year must have been rather stressful on them.  Photo by Mary Ann Levan.

Deer tough it out in the winter, and this year must have been rather stressful on them.

Deer are ungulates, or mammals with hooves.  Deer tracks are recognizable because they are often large (1.25 – 3.5 inches) and heart-shaped.  But the foot also has a pair of small digits called dewclaws that only leave an imprint in soft ground or snow.  These tracks were made in a thin layer of fluffy, new snow over a deep base of hardened snow below.  They show the dewclaws especially well.

Although these were the tracks of a single animal, White-tailed Deer often travel in groups, leaving a trail of many tracks where several animals have passed together.   Photo by Mary Ann Levan.

Although these were the tracks of a single animal, White-tailed Deer often travel in groups, leaving a trail of many tracks where several animals have passed together.

A real treat in these cold, open areas were these bird tracks that appeared suddenly, strolled about in leisurely patterns and then disappeared.  These were made by a large bird that was walking in the field alone, stopping at exposed grassy spots to probe the open ground.  The tracks called to mind an American Crow, which move in small groups, but are often seen alone in open fields walking and wandering, appearing to be attending both to the ground and the sky as they move about.

Bird tracks in the snow.  Photo by Mary Ann Levan.

Bird tracks in the snow.

Fields and meadows are home to many types of rodent such as mice and voles.  When there is no snow cover, you can search meadow grasses for trails or “runways”, which are usually bare-ground, slightly dug routes shown by vague impressions of passage through the grass. These trails are also built under the snow; the snow provides cover from predators as the rodents seek out tender bark for winter calories.  These trails were found on the Red Clay Creek floodplain.  They were probably made by the meadow vole, and were uncovered during a period of snow melt that exposed the animals’ hidden activities!

Crazy mouse or vole trails.  Photo by Mary Ann Levan.

Crazy mouse or vole trails.

These tracks presented the unlikely scenario of a lone, intrepid tiny mammal, again probably a vole, crossing a vast open field in full view of aerial predators.  These prints cover about 100 feet of open ground before disappearing into a hole beneath a tree.

A brave small rodent crossed over the snow, in full view of predators that could have been watching.  Photo by Mary Ann Levan.

A brave small rodent crossed over the snow, in full view of predators that could have been watching.

Canada Geese are another common visitor to the Red Clay Creek floodplain and adjacent marshlands.  The webbed feet are evident in these tracks made by quite a crowd of geese in the Ashland marsh.

Goose tracks.  Photo by Mary Ann Levan.

Goose tracks.

Another track common in marshes and stream corridors was that of the raccoon, which finds much of its food in “aquatic prospecting”.  Despite the cold and snowy conditions, raccoons seemed to be quite active this winter; their tracks were frequently seen.  Raccoons make tracks in pairs, a front foot together with the opposite hind foot.  The hind foot (about 3.5 inches) is markedly bigger than the front (2.25 inches), the hind looking like a foot and the front more like a hand.  Each foot leaves imprints of 5 digits, often with prints of claws, as well.

Front and rear raccoon tracks.  Photo by Mary Ann Levan.

Front and rear raccoon tracks.

If you have a backyard bird feeding station, you might be battling very determined and clever raccoon efforts to extract the feed intended for birds.  This design seems to be working well at defeating a very determined nocturnal visitor!

Raccoon scratch marks on my bird feeder!  Photo by Mary Ann Levan.

Raccoon scratch marks on my bird feeder!

Along the hedgerows of brush, vines and young trees that divide the open fields, there are many signs of Gray Squirrel activity.  Though these squirrels do build nests of twigs and leaves for warmth and protection and also make food caches of nuts and seeds, they are quite active on many winter days.  Squirrel tracks are in rows of pairs,  the distance between the track groupings depends on how fast the animal was bounding as it jumped across the ground.  The hind tracks lead the front foot tracks, showing how the back feet fall in front as the animal moves.  If the animal is moving quickly and nervously, you might not see heel marks in the track since the animal is running too fast.  Squirrels have long, curved toenails that act as hooks for tree climbing, and often leave imprints in front of the toes.

Here are tracks of both a squirrel and a fox, which seem to have passed at different times.  The squirrel tracks do not look especially hurried and the fox tracks do not look especially  interested or rushed!  Photo by Mary Ann Levan.

Here are tracks of both a squirrel and a fox, which seem to have passed at different times. The squirrel tracks do not look especially hurried and the fox tracks do not look especially interested or rushed!

Rarely, we came across the trail of an Eastern cottontail rabbit.  Their tracks are large (> 1 inch), with the back foot much bigger than the front and the hind foot falling in the front in the track pattern.  The feet are furry, making the toes hard to count.  In the winter when grass is covered or less available, rabbits feed on twigs, buds and bark, and stay close to their food source and protective cover.

Eastern Cottontail tracks.

Eastern Cottontail tracks.

This enchanted winter is gradually giving way to springtime, if not in warm temperatures, at least in longer hours of daylight and sunshine.  Is there more time to get in more snowfalls this season?  If so, perhaps we can capture the tracks of the springtime animals like the groundhog and the skunk in the glorious cold fluff of winter rather than in the oozy brown muck of springtime! 

Especial thanks to Amy White for her companionship, interest, patience and smart phone on many of these winter adventures.

Amy White, a Delaware Nature Society Teacher Naturalist, enjoys a recent snowfall.

Amy White, a Delaware Nature Society Teacher Naturalist, enjoys a recent snowfall.