Travel

By Joe Sebastiani, Ashland Nature Center Manager

West Texas is a land of few people, wide open spaces, and rugged mountains at the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert.  This desert extends far south into Mexico, and is far from a lifeless, brown expanse.  On the contrary, it is a land full of birds, wildlife, and a wide diversity of plants.  In the third week of April, I led a group of 11 DNS members to west Texas for a week of wildlife, wildflowers, and wild scenery. John Harrod, a Texas native and Dupont Environmental Education Center Manager was my co-leader and did a great job identifying the multitudes of wildflowers we saw.  West Texas had received a healthy dose of rain prior to our trip, and we were told it was the best wildflower bloom the area had seen in 30 years.  Lucky us!

Large areas of desert were awash in color during the DNS April trip to West Texas.  Pictured here is Bitter Rubberweed and Verbena.  Photo by John Harrod.

Large areas of desert were awash in color during the DNS April trip to West Texas. Pictured here is Bitter Rubberweed and Verbena. Photo by John Harrod.

Our trip focused on exploration of the Davis Mountains and Big Bend National Park.  These are mountainous areas that rise above the low-lying Chihuahuan Desert that are cooler, wetter, and contain stands of pine/oak/juniper forest.  The first part of our trip found us in the Davis Mountains which are a hotbed of bird activity.  We focused on finding some of the specialties of the area and stayed at Davis Mountains State Park which has a nice bird feeding station.  This is the most reliable spot in the world to see the Montezuma Quail, one of the most sought-after birds of our trip.  In the days leading up to our visit, however, it had not been seen.  Luckily, while we lingered at the feeding station on our first morning, a beautiful male waddled down out of the grassland and into plain view below the feeders.

The male Montezuma Quail certainly has to be one of the most bizarre-looking birds in North America.  Photo by John Harrod.

The male Montezuma Quail certainly has to be one of the most bizarre-looking birds in North America. Photo by John Harrod.

This trip was timed to take advantage of relatively cool temperatures, the peak of the cactus bloom, as well as the onset of bird migration.  It made for a very full and exciting adventure with many thrilling discoveries.  The cacti bloom was a treat, and some of the names bring to mind painful images. Horse crippler, devils’ head, prickly pear, pincushion, and fishhook cactus all conjure dense thorns and bloody fingers.  Seeing these amazing plants in bloom, however is a different story.  Most sport large, lovely, colorful flowers, and some have names that reflect this quality, such as rainbow cactus and strawberry cactus.  One of the most abundant in the Davis Mountains is the Claret cup cactus, which is eye-catching, and set a high bar early in the trip.

The Claret Cup Cactus was abundant and beautiful around the Davis Mountains.  Photo by John Harrod.

The Claret Cup Cactus was abundant and beautiful around the Davis Mountains. Photo by John Harrod.

Part of our visit to the Davis Mountains included a guided tour of the botanic gardens at the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute.  Our plant identification skills were boosted considerably by their very knowledgeable and friendly staff.  We ended up staying there the whole day, and hiked into a beautiful canyon and to the top of a rocky hilltop for amazing views and a geological interpretive experience of the area.

Our group was warmly welcomed at the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute.  Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Our group was warmly welcomed at the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

The second half of the trip was an adventure deeper into the Chihuahaun Desert and much further from civilization.  The much-anticipated Big Bend National Park rose in the distance as we neared it.  It’s tall desert peaks began as small hills, but arose as fiery, wild and craggy snags as we approached.  This is one of the most beautiful places in the desert southwest, if not the entire United States.

As we entered Big Bend National Park, we were in awe of the wildflower covered desert and gorgeous mountain scenery.  Photo by John Harrod.

As we entered Big Bend National Park, we were in awe of the wildflower covered desert and gorgeous mountain scenery. Photo by John Harrod.

On our first full day in the park, half of the group hiked 11 miles around Emory Peak while the rest of the group ventured to the west end of the park.  The avian reward of the 11-mile hike is the chance to find one of the rarest birds in the United States…the Colima Warbler.  This small brown bird lives mostly in the mountains of northern Mexico, but it is also found in the oak forests of the Chisos Mountains in the park…the only place they nest in the U.S.  After speaking with multiple people who where hiking the trail opposite us who had ALL seen a few of the warblers, the pressure was on to find it.  We found ourselves in the spot where they are most likely to be heard and seen.  (Click below to hear the song).

It was a steep slope of dense oak high up on the mountain.  We heard two of the birds singing, but could not find them.  We zig-zagged up and down the switchback trails to get a look.  Finally, it was singing very close, and was in plain view!  Everyone got a wonderful look at it, and we breathed a sigh of relief.

To see a Colima Warbler in the United States, you must hike the trails around Emory Peak in Big Bend National Park.  The oak forests here are the only place in our country to find one.  Photo by Joe Sebastiani

To see a Colima Warbler in the United States, you must hike the trails around Emory Peak in Big Bend National Park. The oak forests here are the only place in our country to find one. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

After we all saw the Colima Warbler, we excitedly breathed a big sigh of relief!

After we all saw the Colima Warbler, we excitedly breathed a big sigh of relief!

Meanwhile, the other half of the group was having fun along the Rio Grande.  This river courses through high-walled canyons in sections of the park, and it is extremely dramatic.  The only disappointment is the size of the river itself, which is pitifully small compared to what it once was.  Most of the water is siphoned off for human uses before it reaches the park.

The Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park was about the size of the Brandywine River.  Photo by John Harrod.

The Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park was about the size of the Brandywine River. Photo by John Harrod.

View through "The Window", which is a short walk from where we stayed at Big Bend National Park.  Photo by John Harrod.

View through “The Window”, which is a short walk from where we stayed at Big Bend National Park. Photo by John Harrod.

We spent 3 glorious days in Big Bend National Park, learning about the geology, plants, birds, and other wildlife, and took in the scenery around every curve of the paths and roads we traveled.  After we left the park, we stayed at the famous Gage Hotel in Marathon, Texas.  This hotel combines Texas, Cowboy, and Mexican architecture, art, and culture with luxurious accommodations and food.  What a top-notch way to end the trip!

One of the many splendid corners of the Gage Hotel.  Photo by John Harrod.

One of the many splendid corners of the Gage Hotel. Photo by John Harrod.

This week-long Delaware Nature Society trip will be offered again in April of 2016.  If you are interested, please contact us at 302-239-2334 ext. 134 to be added to the list of interested persons.  More information will be available soon.

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.

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Birding the high elevation grassland habitat called Paramo.

 

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

Hank Davis is a professional photographer, board member for the Delaware Nature Society, and is now a winner of the Great Backyard Bird Count photography contest.  Each year, the Great Backyard Bird Count has an associated photography contest, soliciting photographs from birders that are participating in the count.  Five “overall best photograph” winners are chosen.  In 2013, Hank’s photo of two feeding American Flamingo, pictured below, was chosen for 5th place, out of 7,000 entries.  This is quite an accomplishment!  Congratulations Hank!!

Hank Davis' photo of American Flamingos from the DNS trip to Cuba, February, 2013 won 5th place in the Great Backyard Bird Count contest last year.  It was chosen among 7,000 images entered into the contest.

Hank Davis’ photo of American Flamingos from the Delaware Nature Society trip to Cuba, February, 2013 won 5th place in the Great Backyard Bird Count contest last year. It was chosen among 7,000 images entered into the contest.  American Flamingo is common in many coastal locations in Cuba.

You might say, why flamingos?  Why Cuba?  Last year, the Great Backyard Bird Count went global.  Essentially, during a four-day period each February, birders count birds anywhere on earth, not just the backyard, and submit their sightings to the count at http://www.birdsource.org/gbbc.  The count is run by the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in order to get a snapshot of bird populations around the globe in mid-winter.  This citizen science research is generating very important data that will answer questions about bird populations, movements, winter range, and will ultimately help to conserve birds and their habitats.  It just so happened, that during the count period last year, Hank was on the Delaware Nature Society bird survey trip that I was leading to Cuba.  We tried very hard to enter as many bird checklists from Cuba as we could, knowing that we might be the only birders representing the nation for the count.

Hank’s excellent flamingo photo is not his only entry that was recognized.  Below is a great photo of a Cuban Emerald that he captured, also on Cayo Coco, Cuba.  The Cuban Emerald photo was awarded an honorable mention in the “overall best photo” category.

Hank Davis takes some amazing photographs of birds.  This Cuban Emerald was taken on Cayo Coco, Cuba on the Delaware Nature Society trip to the island nation last February.

Hank Davis takes some amazing photographs of birds. This Cuban Emerald was taken on Cayo Coco, Cuba on the Delaware Nature Society trip to the island nation last February.  The Cuban Emerald is a large hummingbird that is very common across the island of Cuba.

If you want to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count in 2014, just go birding anywhere you want and submit your sightings to the website I provided above.  The dates of the count are February 14-17 and you are encouraged to enter as many checklists as you want, whether they are from your backyard, a local park, or while you are visiting another country!  Take a look at the results from the 2013 count, where 4,004 species of birds were reported from around the world, and in Delaware, 144 were reported.

By Carrie Scheick, Teen Naturalist Leader/Teacher Naturalist

What better view is there than a beautiful river stretched out in front of you from the seat of a canoe? This is what the Teen Naturalists got to enjoy for a full week this August.

Jealous? Photo by Dan Kenney.

Jealous? Photo by Dan Kenney.

 Every summer the Delaware Nature Society’s Teen Naturalists gear up for a weeklong adventure. This year, the teens and leaders (“Canoe Man Dan” Kenney, Hannah Greenberg, and myself) headed up to northeastern Pennsylvania to paddle through the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. This section of the Delaware River is generally slow and calm, with a few areas rated up to Class I rapids. The Delaware River is classified as a Wild and Scenic river and it definitely measured up to that classification.

We put in at Milford Beach eagerly wanting to get on the water. We had nothing but smiles on our faces as we paddled the 2 miles to Namanock Island, our first destination to camp for the night.

Happy Teens! Photo by Carrie Scheick.

Happy Teens! Photo by Carrie Scheick.

After the initial check of the campsite, we started unloading gear and noticed a Black Bear on the opposite shore.  This area is known for its sizable Black Bear population. We all were very excited for such a great wildlife sighting early in the trip. Cameras were out as we tried to capture the moment and observe this awesome animal. We were even more excited when the bear got into the water and was swimming around…until we realized he was swimming right towards us.

So what exactly do you do when a Black Bear swims towards you? Photo by Dan Kenney.

So what exactly do you do when a Black Bear swims towards you? Photo by Dan Kenney.

We quickly moved as far up shore of his projected landing site as we could.  We blew our whistles, thinking we would scare the bear because Black Bears usually spook easily. We successfully managed to scare this bear, but not to the point where he turned around to swim away from us, but to the point where he swam more frantically towards the island. We watched the bear scramble out of the water less than 100 feet from where we were standing and run up into our campsite and take off down the island. We ceased blowing our whistles and went to check the campsite for evidence of bears such as claw marks on trees or scat. We didn’t see any evidence, and decided to camp at this site despite the bear.  Thankfully, we didn’t have any other bear encounters that evening.

On Tuesday we paddled 12 miles from Namanock Island to Tom’s Creek. According to Hannah, we had a “peaceful, leisurely paddle on a beautiful river”. Some of us had a more leisurely paddle than others…

Paddling...leisure style.

Paddling…leisure style.

We spent the afternoon fishing and hanging out by the river, enjoying the time we had together in the wilderness.

One of the many fish we caught and released.  Photo by Carrie Scheick.

One of the many fish we caught and released. Photo by Carrie Scheick.

We paddled another 12 miles on Wednesday from Tom’s Creek to Tock’s Island . This day on the water was characterized by a lot of singing, and we paddled through the Walpack Bend, one of the prettiest stretches of the Delaware River. We took a break from paddling and got to (safely) goof around jumping off a large rock on the bank of the river. Check out these fun pictures!

We found a deep swimming hole and a high rock to leap into it.  Photos by Dan Kenney.

We found a deep swimming hole and a high rock to leap into it. Photos by Dan Kenney.

We mixed it up on Thursday and went for a hike in Worthington State Forest, NJ. We hiked a small portion of the Appalachian Trail to Sunfish Pond, a glacial lake that sits on top of the ridge overlooking the water gap.

Sunfish Pond view.  Photo by Hannah Greenberg

Sunfish Pond view. Photo by Hannah Greenberg

Highlights from the hike included picking and eating blueberries along the trail, exploring the pond bank and building rock sculptures, and seeing wildlife such as Northern Water Snakes,  Red Efts, and the largest Bullfrog I’ve ever seen!

We found rock sculptures along the Appalachian Trail.  Photo by Carrie Scheick

We found rock sculptures along the Appalachian Trail. Photo by Carrie Scheick

It stormed Thursday night, so we had the delight of packing up muddy, soggy gear the next morning. Despite the torrential downpour as we paddled to our take out at Kittatinny Point Access, our spirits remained high and the rain surprisingly subsided by the time we reached our take out. We loaded the canoes and gear and eagerly changed into dry clothes. We continued the Teen Naturalist tradition of eating at Five Guys on our way home. It was there we parted ways with Canoe Man Dan and the Water Gap, promising them both we would return soon for another great adventure.

Here we are...warm, dry, happy, and full after our 5-day adventure on the Delaware River.  Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Here we are…warm, dry, happy, and full after our 5-day adventure on the Delaware River. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

If you know someone who is 13 to 17 years old who would likes to study nature, be adventuring outside, and might like a trip such as this, tell them about the Delaware Nature Society’s Teen Naturalist group.  Find information here about registering for the 2013-2014 season.

Link “here” to: http://www.delawarenaturesociety.org/seasonal_progs.html