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.


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 ( 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

Photography by Jim White, Associate Director, Land and Biodiversity

In late May, Jim White and I traveled to the South Carolina Lowcountry at the invitation of the Lowcountry Institute on Spring Island.  The objective?  To develop a new travel program for the Delaware Nature Society.  Jim and I think we have a fantastic trip in the making for you to participate in next spring. 


Joe checking out the scene in the ACE Basin, which is a 350,000-acre Lowcountry wild area of made up of several S.C. Wildlife Management Areas, a National Wildlife Refuge, and many large private natural areas southwest of Charleston. Wildlife abounds here.


We stayed on Spring Island, home-base for the Lowcountry Institute, an environmental non-profit organization charged with environmental education and conservation in southeastern South Carolina.  Spring Island is a nature reserve first, and a residential area second.  In fact, you really don’t see houses on the island.  You see forest, tidal marsh, freshwater ponds, and lots of wildlife.  According to Thomas Blagden, Jr., author of Spring Island: Rhythms of Nature, the island…”is a quintessential Loucountry marsh island.  Perhaps what distinguishes it most is its status as the visionary domain of a group of private residents who have placed the quality of their natural surroundings as their highest priority.”  Luckily, and coincidentally, Matt Sarver, President of the Delmarva Ornithological Society, has in-laws that own a property on the island, and that is where we stayed.  Matt accompanied us on our trip and was our host, tour guide, and chauffeur.  Not bad!

Jim and I toured many areas to get a feel for the natural aspects of the Lowcountry.  Matt and the staff at the Lowcountry institute developed a schedule and accompanied us on our tour.  We visited ACE Basin, Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, various private nature preserves, and a tern and pelican nesting island on the Georgia/South Carolina border.  Our trip next year will include all of these destinations and much more.

ACE Basin is huge.  It is where the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto Rivers combine to form one of the largest undeveloped estuaries on the east coast.  This area attracts many bird species that are more commonly known from south Florida.  We saw Roseate Spoonbill, Reddish Egret, Mottled Duck, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, and American White Pelican.  Vast wetlands attract shorebirds, wading birds, and raptors like Mississippi and Swallow-tailed Kites.  Reptiles and Amphibians abound. 

One of the highlights of our trip was a large American Alligator that growled just feet in front of us at Bear Island Wildlife Management Area in the ACE Basin.

The bird-life was amazing here.  If you have ever seen Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in the height of shorebird migration in late summer, that is what it was like.  Everything depends on water levels, however, and we struck avian gold at Bear Island on our trip, which had just enough mud and just enough water to please a wide diversity of species.

Were we in Florida? No, Bear Island WMA in the ACE Basin of South Carolina. We saw a single Roseate Spoonbill at this location on our trip.

Savannah National Wildlife Refuge was another highlight of our trip.  With 29,000-acres of wetlands and bottomland woodlands along the Savannah River, there was no shortage of bird-life.  Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites swirled above us as Purple Gallinules scooted across lily pads on the water.  The refuge has a wildlife drive that we enjoyed, plus we were given special permission to access an area closed to the public where we searched for reptiles and amphibians.

At Savannah NWR, Common and Purple Gallinules are easy to find. These odd, but colorful members of the rail family look a bit like a duck, but have huge feet for walking across lily pads and through vegetation-choked water.

We were lucky to be escorted by Chris Marsh, Executive Director of the Lowcountry Institute and an expert naturalist, and Tony Mills, their Education Director and a well-known herpetologist and co-author of the book, Lizards and Crocodilians of the Southeast.   

We found 3 Cottonmouth snakes on our trip, including this one at Savannah NWR. Having two expert Herpetologists in the group, Jim and Tony, was a great learning experience. Plus, they LIKE handling poisonous snakes, and know how to do it properly.

Finally, we took a boat excursion to Tomkin’s Island, which is an island made of dredge spoil on the SC/GA border.  A huge number of birds were resting and nesting on the island.  A large breeding colony of Royal and Sandwich Terns occupied this man-made place.  Brown Pelicans were nesting there as well, and some non-breeding American White Pelicans kept them company.  A wide range of shorebirds were stopping by to feed on their migration, including Red Knot, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Marbled Godwit, and many others.  On the way back to the mainland, Dolphins swam to the boat to take a closer look at us.

Royal Terns nest on Tomkin's Island in huge numbers. They are joined by their smaller cousin, the Sandwich Tern.

And I can’t forget the Dolphins…

In the back marshes near Hilton Head Island, Bottlenose Dolphins came over to investigate us.

This trip is still in the draft phase, but you can experience these sights yourself when we offer this for next spring.  You can expect to visit all of these locations, as well as the historic cities of Charleston, Savannah, and Beaufort, plus the Webb Wildlife Area for Long-leaf Pine ecosystem and the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker, as well as the historic Magnolia Gardens and Plantation…one of the most famous and beautiful plantations of the south.  Jim White will be leading the trip, and we look forward to sharing it with you.

By Derek Stoner, Conservation Project Coordinator

A Meadow Vole sitting under a picnic table at Ashland, chewing grasses with its sharp incisors. Image by Derek Stoner, May 15, 2012.

On May 15, we had a very interesting visitor to the staff picnic tables at Ashland Nature Center:  a Meadow Vole!

The small rodent showed no fear of humans and allowed for close approach.  With digital camera and video camera, I recorded the tiny rodent chewing on the grasses that it gathered with its tiny forepaws.   Typically Meadow Voles hide under the grass and leaf layer of dead vegetation, in order to avoid the eyes of predators. 

The Meadow Vole clutches the blade of grass in its right paw while it pushes the vegetation into its mouth. Image by Derek Stoner, May 15, 2012.

Meadow Voles are one of the most abundant small mammals that live in this region, and they are an incredibly important part of the food chain.   Studies have shown that they can occur at densities of more than 400 per acre!  Meadow Voles have a remarkable reproductive output that earns them the distinction of the world’s most prolific mammal. Females can breed when they are a month old and produce litters of 3-10 pups every three weeks for the rest of their lives.  A captive female produced 17 litters in one year!

Animals like Red Foxes, Striped Skunks, Red-tailed Hawks, Great-horned Owls, Barred Owls, and  Barn Owls all rely heavily on Meadow Voles as a prey item.  These rodents are perfect “protein packages” that supply the majority of meat to predators in our local meadow ecosystems.   

Enjoy this video of the Meadow Vole munching away under the lunch table– matched to appropriate music for this mysterious hero of meadow habitats!