Travel

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 Carrie Scheick, Teen Naturalist Program Leader

The Teen Naturalists kicked off 2017 by orienteering at French Creek State Park in Berks County, PA. This 7,339 acre park was logged repeatedly to make charcoal for the Hopewell Furnace, which operated until the late 1800s. The land was sold to the government in the Great Depression, and managed similarly to the national parks at the time, with the Civilian Conservation Corps building recreational facilities in the park. Today the park land is owned by the State of Pennsylvania and the National Park Service maintains the historic furnace as the Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site. This park is the largest contiguous forest between New York City and Washington D.C., known for the variety of wildlife and recreational activities, including more than 35 miles of trails.

French Creek State Park is also home to a permanent orienteering course. Orienteering is a sport that combines navigational skills and racing. Participants use a highly detailed map and a compass to move from point to point, trying to complete the course in the least amount of time. We were not that competitive, but we did enjoy the challenge of navigating ourselves through the course around Hopewell Lake.

 

Orienteering orientation. Photo by Hannah Greenberg.

Orienteering orientation. Photo by Hannah Greenberg.

 

After a quick introduction, the Teens began to familiarize themselves with the compass, map, and map legend. Orienteering maps are incredibility detailed – roads, fences, trails, streams, hills, depressions, rocks, vegetation, etc. are accurately located. The Teens oriented themselves from our starting point in the parking lot to “control #1”. We set off in that direction, searching for a post with an orange and white square at the top.

 

he red lines and control numbers designate the orienteering course. Photo by Carrie Scheick

The red lines and control numbers designate the orienteering course. Photo by Carrie Scheick

 

Check out this super detailed legend! Photo by Carrie Scheick.

Check out this super detailed legend! Photo by Carrie Scheick.

 

Where are we? Where are we going next? Photo by Carrie Scheick.

Where are we? Where are we going next? Photo by Carrie Scheick.

Each post had the control number and letter code on the marker post placard. The letter code is recorded for competitive orienteering, to prove you made it to that location.

We recorded the letters in hopes that they spelled a word upon completion of the course, but they unfortunately did not. Photo by Carrie Scheick.

We recorded the letters in hopes that they spelled a word upon completion of the course, but they unfortunately did not. Photo by Carrie Scheick.

 

Our orienteering adventure took us on and off trail…

Photo by Carrie Scheick

Photo by Carrie Scheick

 

…over logs and through boulder fields…

Photo by Carrie Scheick

Photo by Carrie Scheick

 

…across crossable and un-crossable streams…

Photo by Hannah Greenberg

Photo by Hannah Greenberg

Photo by Carrie Scheick

Photo by Carrie Scheick

 

…up and down hills and to the very edge of the park.

Photo by Carrie Scheick

Photo by Carrie Scheick

Photo by Carrie Scheick

Photo by Carrie Scheick

 

There were times we needed to pause and look at the map…

Photo by Hannah Greenberg

Photo by Hannah Greenberg

 

…but we were always excited when we successfully made it to each marker.

Photo by Hannah Greenberg

Photo by Hannah Greenberg

 

The misty rain and fog provided us with beautiful scenery in the woods. We saw and/or heard multiple species of birds including Mallard, Pileated Woodpecker, Belted Kingfisher, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Carolina Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, and Eastern Bluebird. There was a variety of fungi including puffball fungus, polypore fungus, and witch’s butter fungus. A Northern Watersnake took advantage of the mild temperatures and came out to say hello to us at the dam.

 

Mallards on a foggy Hopewell Lake. Photo by Hannah Greenberg.

Mallards on a foggy Hopewell Lake. Photo by Hannah Greenberg.

Photo by Carrie Scheick

Photo by Carrie Scheick

Check out the bright orange color of Witch’s butter fungus. Photo by Hannah Greenberg.

Check out the bright orange color of witch’s butter fungus. Photo by Hannah Greenberg.

Northern water snake. Photo by Carrie Scheick.

Northern water snake. Photo by Carrie Scheick.

For most of the Teens, this was their first experience orienteering. They all enjoyed the challenge, as it gave additional purpose to their hike and time outdoors. This outing was a great way to kick off the year!

Photo by Carrie Scheick.

Photo by Carrie Scheick.

Photo by Hannah Greenberg.

Photo by Hannah Greenberg.

The Teen Naturalist program is open to teens ages 13-17 who have an interest in studying nature, adventuring outdoors, volunteering, and meeting other teens who enjoy these same activities. You can register at www.delnature.org/programs or contact us at (302) 239-2334 for more information and the program schedule.

By Derek Stoner, Seasonal Program Team Leader

A Red-eyed Tree Frog dazzles with colors when illuminated by a flashlight, as it hunts at night for insect prey in the Costa Rican rainforest. Photo by trip participant Joe Flowers.

A Red-eyed Tree Frog dazzles with colors when illuminated by a flashlight, as it hunts at night for insect prey in the Costa Rican rainforest. Photo by trip participant Joe Flowers.

Continuing our “flashback tour” from our Costa Rica 2015 adventure:

As our group settled in at the comfortable Evergreen Lodge on the banks of the picturesque Tortuguero River, we could hardly imagine the bounty of wildlife could be any greater than what we found right around our accommodations.    Dazzling hummingbirds fed from fire-red Heleconia flowers all around us while White-faced Capuchin monkeys scrambled about in the treetops in search of ripe fruit.   Rainbow-hued land crabs scuttled underfoot to hide in their burrows as they avoided the feet of distracted nature enthusiasts.

A White-faced Capuchin monkey prepares to leap from the tree towards the onlookers. Photo by Derek Stoner.

A White-faced Capuchin monkey prepares to leap from the tree towards the onlookers. Photo by Derek Stoner.

Our evening adventure took us into the dark and narrow canals cut into the nearby rainforest, allowing special access to a world of trees, vines, flowers, and teeming wildlife.  The captain of the boat deftly brought our vessel with close range of the animals while our guide provided a running commentary on the interesting life history of these unique species.

A male Northern Jacana displays for the female while dancing across a bed of Water Hyacinths. Photo by Derek Stoner.

A male Northern Jacana displays for the female while dancing across a bed of Water Hyacinths. Photo by Derek Stoner.

We encountered a very confiding pair of Northern Jacanas, rail-like birds with impossibly long toes that help them walk delicately atop the floating aquatic vegetation.  At point-blank range we witnessed the male showing off his bright-yellow wing spurs while pumping his chestnut-colored wings and chest.  The display continued as we motored on to view the next wildlife spectacle around the bend.

The reclusive Black River Turtle, found only in a small region of Costa Rica, basks on a river-side log. Photo by Derek Stoner.

The reclusive Black River Turtle, found only in a small region of Costa Rica, basks on a river-side log. Photo by Derek Stoner.

Our exploration led us to close encounters with the endemic Black River Turtle, a bright red-and-black Red-capped Manakin, Howler Monkeys hooting overhead, and Great Currasows (a turkey-like bird) scrambling through palm fronds.   As the boat gently nudged a log, a Caiman (small crocodilian) splashed into the water from its camouflaged hiding place.  Our group spied a Boat-billed Heron resting amidst an umbrella of vegetation, staring back at use with its large eyes used for nocturnal hunting.  The rattling calls of Green Kingfishers and Amazon Kingfishers seemed to greet us around almost every turn.

Exploring the river by boat is a fantastic way to encounter wildlife and access unique habitats. Photo by Derek Stoner.

Exploring the river by boat is a fantastic way to encounter wildlife and access unique habitats. Photo by Derek Stoner.


As our blog journey back to last Fall’s Costa Rica trip continues in future posts, we invite you to look ahead on your calendar and consider joining Delaware Nature Society this November for a bigger and better Costa Rica exploration: a twelve-day Tropical Wildlife Adventure.  From the Caribbean to the Pacific, from the lowlands to the cloud forest, we will visit unique habitats and stay at spectacular lodges during this grand tour of the best  natural areas in this tropical paradise.  Guided by Costa Rican native Jose Saenz.

Costa Rica: A Tropical Wildlife Adventure, will run from November 10 to November 21.   Delaware Nature Society staff Judy Montgomery and Derek Stoner will be the hosts and provide you with a first-class eco-tourism experience as we travel together to the tropics.  Member pricing is $3,920 (airfare not included) and includes all lodging, meals, ground transportation, and special experiences like snorkeling.  Call 302-239-2334, extension 127 or email judym@delnature.org for trip details.

Registration deadline is July 31.

 

By Derek Stoner, Seasonal Program Team Leader

A young Two-toed Sloth nestles on its mother as she hangs upside down in a tree at our lunch stop. Photo by trip participant Rod Ellingsworth.

A young Two-toed Sloth nestles on its mother as she hangs upside down in a tree at our lunch stop. Photo by trip participant Rod Ellingsworth.

The Delaware Nature Society led a trip to Costa Rica recently, journeying from coast-to-coast in this verdant Central American country for twelve days in late October and early November of 2015.  The group, led by Derek Stoner and Judy Montgomery, began our adventure in the capital city of San Jose.  Aboard a tour bus with 20 participants, two trip leaders, a tour manager (Jose Saenz of Collette Travel) and our jovial bus driver Juan Carlos, we quickly exited the big city and headed into the wilds.  Here is the first installment in a series of five posts detailing our discoveries…

How often do you get to have lunch with a sloth?  After a delicious meal at Restaurant Ceibo, we turned our attention to the riot of wildlife that surrounded the building.  Right beside our tour bus, four different Two-toed Sloths could be observed in classic sloth-pose:  hanging leisurely upside-down and half-asleep.  A female with a young baby stole the show, as the youngster (showing very pale blonde hair on its head) changed positions on the nursing female.

Blue Jean Frogs, a species of poison dart frog named for its blue legs on a bright red body, clamber around the base of a Kapok (Ceibo) tree. Photo by trip participant Rod Ellingsworth.

Blue Jean Frogs, a type of poison dart frog named for its blue legs on a bright red body, clamber around the base of a Kapok (Ceibo) tree. Photo by trip participant Rod Ellingsworth.

Soon we loaded up in the bus and continued our day’s journey towards to Caribbean coast.  At the end of a dusty, bumpy road we came to the “boat ramp” which consisted of an eroded bank plunging into the crocodile-inhabited waters of the Tortuguero River.  Jumping aboard with our luggage into a 40-foot long, shallow-draft boat, we held onto the sides of the vessel as we rocketed down the narrow channel of the river.

A Basilisk lizard lounges along the Tortuguero River in Costa Rica. Photo by Derek Stoner.

A Basilisk lizard lounges along the Tortuguero River in Costa Rica. Photo by Derek Stoner.

Along the high banks of the river, we spied droopy-eyed Brahma cattle– the type of bovine that thrives in the heat and humidity of the tropics.  Around one bend we came across a large American Crocodile (12+ feet long) hauled out on the sunny sandbar.   Cattle Egrets, Little Blue Herons, Great Egrets, and other wading birds flushed and swirled away as our boat encroached on their zone of comfort.

But the real excitement came when we began spotting the beautiful Basilisks, a species of large golden-green lizard that is most famous for its ability to skip across the water on its hind legs.  The moniker of “Jesus Christ Lizard” is what makes this species most famous, and the question in our minds was:  Would we get to see these amazing reptiles actually walk on water?

Stay tuned for the answer to that question and more highlights from our Costa Rica adventure…