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Ian Stewart & Lori Athey

Now that spring is here many Delawareans are enjoying the colorful wildflowers blooming in their backyard, local parks and road sides. Unfortunately, the great majority of those currently flowering are alien weeds which were either deliberately or accidentally introduced by Europeans. These plants found themselves in a new environment with few or no natural enemies and spread rapidly across our area. Each weed produces hundreds if not thousands of seeds and an entire backyard can be riddled with them in just a few years.

The three most common yellow-flowered weeds have been covered in a previous blog (http://blog.delawarenaturesociety.org/2015/05/06/the-not-so-mellow-yellows/) and this follow-up blog highlights some of the other visually-appealing wildflowers that people may not realize are aggressively invasive aliens.

Three common backyard weeds stay low but spread rapidly to form sun-blocking carpets that inhibit or prevent the growth of any native seeds beneath them. Speedwell (Veronica sp.) is one of the first wildflowers to emerge and its four-petaled circular blue flower can be seen as early as March. There are several species of speedwell but most are alien. Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) produces dozens of tiny purple flowers and spreads by underground rhizomes which makes it especially difficult to control since pulling one part of the plant will not suffice. Clover (Trifolium sp.) is particularly common in farm fields, perhaps because it may have been introduced as livestock feed, but is now ubiquitous in urban and suburban settings. Clovers have three leaves, each with a distinctive white chevron, though finding one with four leaves may bring you luck! There are two sister species, the red and white clover, which are named after the color of their flower.

Speedwell (Left) and Clover (Right)

Ground ivy

Two striking members of the Mint family also stay quite low to the ground but are easily seen because they often grow in large patches. Purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) and henbit (L. amplexicaule, also known as clasping deadnettle) often grow together in fields and backyard although the former is much more common.

purple deadnettle

Henbit

Finally, three conspicuous white-flowered members of the Mustard family are widespread throughout the Piedmont. Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolate) and roadside penny-cress (Thlaspi alliaceum) are both knee-high single-stemmed weeds which form large clumps in sunny areas, while hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsute) is quite a bit smaller and branches into multiple small flowers.

Garlic mustard

roadside penny-cress

Penny-cress up close

Purple deadnettle (on left) and hairy bittercress (on right)

These alien wildflowers are especially problematic because they bloom in early spring and may have already produced seeds before householders begin mowing. Although it is an uphill battle, most weeds can be controlled by hand-pulling them before they go to seed, especially if the whole root system is removed.  Repeated early mowing or weed-whacking will deplete the weeds’ resources before they even flower. If you have a large yard or field an alternative option is to gradually convert it into a meadow with long grass and native wildflowers which is left standing throughout the winter and early spring. This helps to restrict early-growing weeds like ground ivy and deadnettle by reducing the amount of sunlight they receive.

Once you have removed the alien weeds you can replace them with native wildflowers which are much better for wildlife, especially our declining pollinator insects as well as the animals that feed on them. A perfect opportunity is the Delaware Nature Society’s Native Plant Sale which is held at Coverdale Farm in Greenville. It starts with a member’s-only day on Thursday May 2nd (1pm-7pm; though you are welcome to attend and join in person) and is then open to the public Friday May 3rd (3pm-7pm) and Saturday May 4th (9am – 3pm). Admission is free and there will be plenty of staff and volunteers present to answer any questions about plants and help you load them into your car!

The full catalog is online here but just to whet your appetite, here is a selection of groundcover plants which are tough and fast-growing and have a decent chance at outcompeting those pesky weeds!

Dry sunny location

Andropogon virginicus (Broom Sedge) grass

Coreopsis verticillata (Whorled Tickseed) perennial

Geum fragarioides (Barren Strawberry) evergreen perennial

Phlox subulata (Moss Phlox) evergreen perennial

 

Dry shaded location

Antennaria plantaginifolia (Woman’s Tobacco Pussytoes) semi-evergreen perennial

Chasmanthium latifolium (Wild Oats) grass

Geranium maculatum (Wild Geranium) perennial

Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas Fern) evergreen fern

 

Moist shaded location

Asarum canadense (Wild Ginger) perennial

Osmundastrum cinnamomeum (Cinnamon Fern) fern

Phlox stolonifera (Creeping Phlox) perennial

Zizia aurea (Golden Alexanders) perennial

 

Moist to wet sunny location

Carex cherokeensis (Cherokee Sedge) grass

Eupatorium perfoliatum (Boneset) perennial

Iris versicolor (Blue Flag) perennial

Panicum virgatum (Switchgrass) grass

 

Ian Stewart

These are the opening words of the poem ‘To a mouse’, written by the legendary haggis-eating Scottish poet Robert Burns in 1785 (which also contains the famous line oft-paraphrased as ‘The best-laid schemes of mice and men go often askew’). Although this is an apt description of mice it is also used to refer to all manner of small, obscure and reclusive animals and feather mites fit perfectly into this category.

Most people have never heard of feather mites which is hardly surprising. They are tiny brown arthropods which spend most of their lives flattened along the vanes of bird wing feathers where they were assumed to scavenge on feather debris and oily secretions and perhaps even rasp away at the feathers themselves. However, a remarkable study published last summer (Doña et al. 2018) examined the contents of mites’ stomachs using high-power microscopy and DNA analysis and found that their main food was fungi, and perhaps also bacteria and oil produced from the birds’ preen gland. Whether this means feather mites harm their hosts or are simply commensal remains to be seen.

Birds are assumed to acquire feather mites through physical contact with their parents while they are still in the nest, although they could also pick up mites from bumping into other birds at feeders or sharing the same dust bathing sites. Mites are quite easy to see if you are holding open a bird’s wing although with the naked eye they just look like a cluster of small dots (shown below).

We gained a whole new appreciation for these creatures when Shannon Modla of the University of Delaware kindly photographed some Gray Catbird feather mites under a light microscope. The magnified views show that they are long and thin with two pairs of legs at the front of their body and two pairs at the back (image below). The darker mites on the left and below are probably older mites with a hardened exoskeleton while the paler one on the right is probably a younger mite that has just molted.

Shannon was then able to view them under a powerful electron microscope and got some incredible images of their head as well as an egg (below).

To try to gain some insights into the biology of these enigmatic creatures we have been scoring the number of feather mites present on birds handled during the Delaware Nature Society’s Bird Banding project. Our simple questions were which bird species are most likely to have mites and whether the number of birds with mites varies according to the time of year.

Our first finding was that feather mites are quite common. We examined 448 birds belonging to 48 species and found that almost half of them (203 birds from 37 species) had mites on at least one of their wing feathers. We also found the proportion of birds with mites varies a lot between species. Over 75% of the Slate-colored Juncos, House Finches and Downy Woodpeckers that we examined had feather mites yet fewer than 15% of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Common Yellowthroats or House Wrens had them. We also found that the proportion of birds with mites stayed quite consistent across the year with a noticeable peak in May.

This year we will be gathering more data on mites from the birds we band and then try to figure out why some birds are more likely to have mites than others, and why some have lots of mites while others have very few. Is it related to their body size perhaps, or how social they are, or maybe whether their beak is small and pointed enough to preen away the mites? So watch this space for updates on this new and fascinating DNS research project!

DNS has plenty of birding opportunities coming up soon, so sign up and enjoy the outdoors!

The Great Backyard Bird Count ~ Coverdale Farm Preserve

The Great Backyard Bird Coount: Kent County Tour ~ Abbott’s Mill Nature Center

Owls and Other Winter Raptors ~ Ashland Nature Center

 

Ian Stewart

Jewelweed is a colorful native annual wildflower that is common in damp marshy areas where it grows as a thin bush about 4 feet high. It is also known as ‘touch-me-not’ because of its curious habit of expelling its projectile seeds when the flowers are handled or brushed against. Jewelweed is a classic folk remedy because the juice of its leaves and stems is a well-known antidote to stings and rashes from stinging nettle, which it often grows close to.

Jewelweed growing along the boardwalk at Ashland

Many Delawareans are familiar with jewelweed as it is often found in shaded suburban gardens and parks, but few people realize that there are two species and they usually grow right next to each other! The most common is spotted jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), which is also known as orange jewelweed. This has bright orange petals densely covered with red spots and a long ‘nectar spur’ which curls along the bottom of the flower. The second, less-common species is yellow jewelweed (Impatiens pallida), which is also known as pale jewelweed. This has larger, yellow flowers with only a smattering of red spots and a shorter nectar spur which dangles downward. The leaves of yellow jewelweed have more veins and are more deeply toothed than those of the orange jewelweed. In my experience, spotted jewelweed outnumbers yellow by about 5 to 1.

Side by side views of spotted (left) and yellow (right) jewelweed showing the differences in petal pattern, the length and angle of the nectar spur, and leaf venation

Jewelweed is pollinated by both hummingbirds and bees and watching these insects crawl into the depths of the flower to access the nectar pooled up in the spur is a fun way to spend a sunny afternoon! If you’re very lucky you may get to see a hummingbird feeding from the nectar spur.

A bee burrows into a jewelweed flower in search of nectar

The bee’s back is now coated in pollen from the pollen stalk dangling above it. The bee may now pollinate the next jewelweed it enters!

Both jewelweeds have a long blooming season from late spring through the early fall and are an attractive native wildflower to plant in a damp, shaded corner of your yard to attract pollinator insects and hummingbirds.

Learn more about how you can garden for native plants and wildlife by certifying your yard as a wildlife habitat through the Delaware Nature Society

https://www.delawarenaturesociety.org/what-we-do/protecting-habitats-wildlife/garden-for-wildlife/

 

By Annalie Mallon, Ashland School Program Coordinator

Waterfalls, wild blueberries, black bear warnings, and winner of the 2018 Pennsylvania River of the year! What more could you possibly ask for on a summer trip into the Pennsylvania wilderness? Every summer the Delaware Nature Society’s Teen Naturalists head out for a week-long adventure, and these are just some of the things that were encountered on this year’s trip.

Teens enjoying lunch at the Canyon Vista Summit

Teens enjoying lunch at the Canyon Vista Summit. Photo by Annalie Mallon

Earlier this month, the teens and leaders (Courtney McKinley, Lauren Powell, and myself) embarked on a 4-day backpacking trip through the Loyalsock State Forest in northern Pennsylvania. After stuffing our packs to a full 40 pounds each with food, supplies, and gear, we were excited to see what this week in the wild would bring us. Our plan was to hike a popular section of the Loyalsock Trail, a rugged trail weaving its way through the state forest for 59 miles. We were going to hike the trail starting at Dutchman falls, branch off of it to hike the Link trail that travels through Worlds End State park, and then reconnect with the Loyalsock, circling back to where we started, thus creating a 25 mile loop (DCNR map below). Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Map

Prior to the start of our trip we had been persistently checking the weather forecast in hopes of seeing nothing but four days of gorgeous sunny skies and no humidity. Instead what we were presented with was a forecast for severe thunderstorms, heavy rain, and damaging winds. During our drive up the PA turnpike it occurred to us that we may not want to get stuck in the backcountry in heavy rain and damaging winds with nothing but the gear on our backs. Our plan for day 1 was quickly rearranged and we decided to start our trip in Worlds End State Park at a group campsite and cross our fingers that the forecast would change so we could start backpacking on Tuesday.

When we arrived at Worlds End we were greeted by a gorgeous valley full of pines and ferns snaking its way along the Loyalsock Creek. We set up camp and decided to find a place along the creek to swim and eat. Cheerful that we did not yet have to carry our heavy packs on our backs, we found a sunny spot next to the roaring creek scattered with smooth stones and perfect sitting rocks. We swam in the cold mountain water and created small rock cairns while we ate our hoagie dinners. A perfect start to our week!

Exploring the Loyalsock

Exploring the Loyalsock and building rock cairns. Photos by Annalie Mallon.

Photo of a rock cairn

Tuesday morning welcomed us with (shockingly) more sun. With no cell reception we took a short trip to the park visitor center to check the most updated forecast, but to our dismay it had gotten even worse! Tuesday afternoon was apparently bringing several storms and Wednesday was bringing heavy rains, winds, and possible hail. To backpack or not to backpack, that was becoming the major question. After discussing the pros and cons of the situation we changed our plans for the second time that week. We decided to hike, sans backpacks, the Canyon Vista Trail in the state park; a 4 mile loop that takes you up to an elevation of 1,750 feet with stunning views of the creek below. The climb was definitely worth it, the views were spectacular, and the trail itself meandered through a thick deciduous forest scattered with fungi, ferns, and trickling mountain springs. We enjoyed our lunch with a view at the peak and then visited the rock garden where we tested our fear of heights by jumping across crevices, and also explored caves in massive boulders.

Teens enjoying the views of the Canyon Vista Trail and Rock Garden

Teens enjoying the views of the Canyon Vista Trail and Rock Garden. Photos by Annalie Mallon.

It was around this time that the storms finally started rolling in. We quickly started to make our way back down the mountain, picking up our pace with each crack of thunder that came from overhead. I truly don’t think anyone has ever scrambled 2.5 miles down a rocky mountain trail as quickly as we did in that short 30 minute stretch. Upon catching our breaths and rehydrating at the bottom of the trail we decided that whatever the forecast did or did not predict, we certainly did NOT want to get caught in thunderstorms while in the backcountry. So instead of backpacking that afternoon….

We got ice cream and went swimming instead!!

I know what you must be thinking at this point, this is SO not a true Teen Naturalist adventure trip into the wilderness. Family campgrounds with actual bathrooms, not carrying 40-pound packs on our backs, and now Ice Cream?? Believe me, we would have LOVED backpacking those 25 miles if it wasn’t for that darn weather forecast! But alas, weather is weather, so of course we visited the Worlds End State Park swimming hole and ice cream shop. The creek water was FREEZING but oh so refreshing after our fast paced descent down the mountain. The sun had also come back out so we were quite content. While swimming, we started to brainstorm some plan C options for the afternoon and evening (remember, storms and rain still in the forecast). We officially decided to leave Worlds End and head south to Ricketts Glen State Park!

If you have never visited Ricketts Glen State Park, I highly recommend you do. It makes for a perfect weekend camping trip with beautiful trails and excellent waterfalls. We found an awesome campsite (somehow we scored a site right on Lake Jean!), and set up camp for the night. Then we found the blueberries. Oh. My. Goodness. The wild blueberries. They were EVERYWHERE. Bushes just bursting with the sweetest, yummiest, freshest blueberries. We spent a majority of our time that evening picking and devouring the little berries, and once again we were not complaining that we were not backpacking.

Wild blueberry bush and bowl of blueberries on a table

Blueberries galore! Photos by Annalie Mallon.

Wednesday morning brought nothing but clear skies once again, so we decided to hike the famous Falls Trail in the park. The full trail is a 7.2 mile loop with 21 gorgeous waterfalls ranging in heights from 11 feet to 94 feet. We hiked the smaller 3.2 mile loop that follows two separate branches of Kitchen Creek as it cuts down through the Glen Leigh and Ganoga Glen valleys and comes together at “Waters Meet”. The sedimentary rocks that are exposed throughout the hike were formed over 370 million years ago and the waterfalls that cut through the rocks are magnificent. We spent the hike enjoying the falls, looking for salamanders, and even came across a HUGE snapping turtle!

Photo of Newt on a rock and teen holding a large snapping turtle

A red-spotted newt in its juvenile Red-Eft stage and Jared holding a HUGE Common Snapper. Photos by Courtney McKinley

Teens Hiking the Falls Trail

Hiking the Falls Trail photo by Courtney McKinley

After finishing our hike we enjoyed a picnic lunch, a small catnap on a lakeside beach, and more swimming, and then (SURPRISE!) made another new plan. We now were headed to our third PA state park of the trip; Hickory Run State Park! The campsite we chose was surrounded by pines and located next to a lovely trickling mountain stream. Unhindered (okay, maybe just a tad hindered) by the park ranger’s warnings of a “major bear problem,” we enjoyed our first lovely blazing campfire of the week with some classic scary stories and marshmallows before heading to our tents for our final sleep.

We awoke Thursday to our last day of perfect weather, and with bittersweet feelings we began to say our goodbyes to the gorgeous PA wilderness and start our journey home. Reflecting on our wild week full of last minute plans and reminiscing on some favorite Teen Naturalist trips of the past, our van ride went by in a snap and we pulled into the Ashland driveway with nothing but smiling faces (perhaps due to the fact that we did not end up backpacking 25 miles).

Group photo of teens and leaders in front of the Ganoga Falls

The Teens and Leaders next to Ganoga Falls at Ricketts Glen. Photo by Courtney McKinley

If you know a teenager, who is 13 – 17 years of age, that would like to join the Delaware Nature Society Teen Naturalists, please contact me at (302) 239-2334 ext. 120. The Teen Naturalists meet once per month, study nature, adventure outside, and go on a trip like this every August.